Let the battle begin

I have one basic prediction for open source in 2003: The competition between Microsoft and the open-source world will become fierce.

2002 started with Microsoft basically ignoring open source. By the close of the year, however, Microsoft dominated the anti-open-source rhetoric in the world. Open source moved from the edge of Redmond's radar to the center -- especially because Linux is becoming a player on the desktop.

In 2003, the conflict between open source and Microsoft will increase by at least an order of magnitude. We saw a taste of this in India as last year drew to a close. When many folks in the Indian government had expressed an interest in developing the country's computing infrastructure around open-source software, Microsoft responded by promising hundreds of millions of dollars to develop that infrastructure.

Although the fact that Microsoft decided to use a little of its multibillion dollar war chest to lock in a growing market is not surprising, the fact that the Indian government has not simply rolled over and capitulated is. Recent stories in the Indian press indicate that the promise of big money is not dissuading many in the government from its push toward open source. Suddenly, Microsoft is engaged in a battle to gain a foothold it used to be able to buy.

But is it too much to describe the competition between Microsoft and open source as a battle? Isn't this simply a matter of software?

Not at all. On one side is a force to remake the IT industry by lowering the barrier of entry so that any organization in any country can build an impressive computing resource for the price of labor (almost dirt cheap in many developing countries) and inexpensive PC hardware. On the other side is the biggest software company in the world which (according to a recent SEC filing) makes most of its money from OS and office-suite sales.

If open source succeeds, Microsoft will have to totally reinvent itself. I don't mean "reinvent" like the sharp turn the company took when it woke up to the Internet's power in the 1990s. Think of "reinvent" as Microsoft pushing a great big reboot button on its business plan.

As that SEC filing points out, many key Microsoft ventures such as CE/Mobility, MSN, and Xbox are still big money losers. They require the strong profits provided by products such as Windows and Office to survive. If those profits disappear in the advancing tide of open source, the folks in Redmond will need to rethink every business strategy they have. And I doubt they'd find that prospect attractive.

So the battle is not really about software. The battle is over two radically different visions of the future of computing on a global scale.

Will much of business computing's future remain in the hands of a single company, or will the IT world take control of its destiny through open source?

This is the year when we find out.

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