Imagine a Microsoft-Free Life

Has the time come at last to live a Microsoft-free life?

That thought crossed my mind yesterday morning as I read an announcement from IBM that (with Canonical Inc.) it was offering a new Linux-based virtual desktop suite that, at user prices as low as $59, would compete directly with the iconic Microsoft Office.

As part of the announcement, Big Blue also claimed that in a likely configuration -- a full Linux suite that included Lotus Notes e-mail, Sametime instant messaging, and some other collaboration tools -- the entire set-up would cost just $258 per user -- and that's not including the labor and maintenance savings that would come from shifting processing from the PC to the server in the network settings where this product is targeted to be sold. That's hundreds of dollars less than a comparable Vista/Office license.

On paper, that looks like a pretty sweet deal, and IBM knows it: "We are certainly cheaper than migrating to Office 2007 on Vista," said Inna Kuznetsova, director of Linux strategy at IBM. One can imagine the smirk on her face as she got the chance to bring up that much-maligned operating system.

In truth, it will probably not be that easy, or inexpensive, to jump from Microsoft to Big Blue as it hasn't been with past attempts by other companies to dethrone MS Office. Just ask Oracle or Sun Microsystems.

For one thing, for everyday folks, Linux is still a pain in the butt to use, its user interface still showing too much of its geek roots. There is also a natural resistance by many users to give up control over their own desktops -- that is, having it reside inside one's own personal computer -- to become the "thin client" of a distant server.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the natural human tendency to stick with what you know -- and what you've devoted years of attention to -- rather than to cast off and try something new even if it is clearly better and/or cheaper.

And when it comes to the average user, Microsoft Office is the desktop and has likely been so ever since they bought their first computer. As such, it is not a feature of their computers, it is their computers -- and getting them to consciously remove it presents an obstacle I'm not sure even mighty IBM can overcome.

It's interesting to look back on the early days of this industry -- I was around as reporter for the Windows, Word and Office introductions -- and realize how completely everybody, from industry executives to analysts to academics, missed this hidden X Factor in tech.

Twenty years ago, it was generally assumed that whatever company has the most innovative product in a given market won the game. A more nuanced view held that, while innovation won in the short term, marketing (including user support, tools, training, etc.) was the ultimate winner. There was also a vague understanding -- though a few people, like Bill Gates, understood it very well -- that the goal was to have your product become the "industry standard," a term that in those days mostly referred to accepted industry design rules (i.e. IEEE 488, etc.)

The irony was that examples of the sheer power -- and burden -- of having your product become the industry standard were all around us. And none was greater than that offered by IBM. The IBM 360 mainframe computer had made Big Blue the richest manufacturing company on the planet, more dominant in tech then than any company today. And the penumbra of brand loyalty, compatibility, comfort and sense of inevitability that surrounded the 360 made it easy for IBM to move into, and instantly dominate, any other business it chose to enter, such as minicomputers.

It was, after all, IBM's decision -- the result of a series of unlikely and sometimes curious events -- to adopt the Intel 8088 and Microsoft DOS as, respectively, the central processor and the operating system of the IBM PC that made those two technologies the de facto standards of the emerging personal computing world and ultimately made Intel and Microsoft the most valuable companies of their time.

Why didn't we recognize this in 1982?

One obvious reason is that another unlikely historic conjunction was taking place and we were so busy watching the downside of becoming a standard that it distracted us. Once again, it was IBM: after more than a decade of owning the computing world with the 360, the company managed to transition its users to the follow-up 370 series. But it had been painful, Big Blue finding itself for the first time faced with the issue of legacy -- the vast body of users who had put long hours and huge sums into 360 applications and weren't interested in upgrading to the new generation.

Now, IBM was preparing to do it again with its "H" series -- and it was running smack into a wall of resistance from its own customers. Silicon Valley, watching this mess unfold, forgot all about the 30 years that Big Blue had owned computing and the billions of dollars it had made -- and instead learned all of the wrong lessons about becoming a standard. It would be another quarter century until most of (non-Intel) Silicon Valley -- thanks to Steve Jobs -- finally got the lesson right.

But Bill Gates didn't make that mistake -- and by quickly driving DOS/Windows and Word/Office into global standards, Microsoft has made hundreds of billions of dollars and continues to hold off most of the competition even to this day.

But like the old IBM, Microsoft is finally beginning to see the back end of standardization. It is now the Bismark or Yamoto of high tech: huge, menacing and still very dangerous, but lumbering, increasingly trapped and now under assault from every direction by faster and more nimble enemies. Apple is attacking from one direction, Google from another, the Linux crowd from still another, and now, irony or ironies, IBM itself -- dead and reborn as a very different company -- is bringing its guns to bear.

None of these assaults are likely to sink Microsoft. Not this time, at least.

The company's biggest burden -- the weight of all of those existing users who see Windows and Office as an intrinsic part of their lives, and who resist any change -- is also its greatest strength: those folks, like all of us fools who still stick with AOL for no other reason than inertia, will not switch to a competitive product easily. But in the end, perhaps before the end of this decade, and perhaps quite suddenly, they will -- and Microsoft will die, perhaps like IBM to be reborn as a different kind of company. And then, as with the old Big Blue, all that will be left is a legacy: in Microsoft's case, it will be having universally popularized the personal computer and, perhaps, for having funded the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Oxford Union Debate

[As I noted last week, I was lucky enough to be one of the participants in a recent Oxford Union debate -- and though my speech wasn't the best of the night, it did have the advantage of being the shortest.

The debaters in support of the resolution ('Resolved: This House believes that the problems of tomorrow are bigger than the entrepreneurs of today') were: Ian Goldin, former vice president of the World Bank and the director of the James Martin 21st Century School, leading economics commentator Will Hutton, and Dr. Angela Wilkinson, director of scenarios and futures research at Saïd Business School.

In opposition were Julie Meyer, CEO, founder and co-founder of Ariadne Capital and First Tuesday, Reid Hoffman, Chairman and Founder of LinkedIn, Jerry Sanders, Managing Director and Founder of San Francisco Science, and Biz Stone, Co-founder of Twitter. I spoke in support of the opposition.

Here is a video of that debate. I show up about 45 minutes in.]

This is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michael S. Malone is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.