12 industry disaster scenarios

The end of the world may or may not be nigh, but in the tech industry, many of these possibilities could easily become reality

Many people believe that 2012 represents the end of the world due to some quirk of the ancient Mayan calendar. I'm not so sure about that. But I do know the end of the year is approaching, so it seems like a good time to ponder the future and consider what might constitute the demise of the tech world as we know it.

A number of scenarios could play out and seriously damage the technology industry and all the people who depend on it. With that happy thought in mind, let's review some possibilities for 2012 and beyond.

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Disaster scenario No. 1: Patent pools accelerate without government oppositionWhile everyone is watching the sideshows (Oracle v. Google, Microsoft v. Samsung), something more insidious is happening. The only thing worse than big companies playing a rich man's roulette with software patent suits is the possibility of them colluding and locking down the market together.

In 2010 and 2011, Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, and more became unlikely bedfellows looking to take in the Novell patents in a consortium known at CPTN. I was part of the Open Source Initiative board that helped stop or at least delay that pre-armageddon. Now the fun continues: Apple and Microsoft have continued their sinister cooperation with their acquisition of the Nortel patents. Kodak's patents were more of a fire sale (possibly because half of the threat was being pulled into court in Rochester, N.Y., for an incomprehensible result), but more walking corpses are ready for the picking.

Right now this mainly involves scooping up dead companies' patents, many of which have expired or are expiring -- and some of which are useless. But what if it doesn't stop there? While these companies are unlikely to donate their offensive and defensive patents to a mutual pool, what if they use their massive stock prices to buy up some of these patent trolls together? In fact, cooperative patent pool trolling is already under way. The biggest disaster here? Continued momentum without comprehensive patent reform or enforcement of antitrust laws.

Disaster scenario No. 2: We're right about Windows 8What's bad for Microsoft is often bad for the industry. A Vista-level fiasco is not in anyone's best interest, even Apple's. We may not all want Microsoft feeling elated, but disastrous dejection is not great for our joint economic outlook, not to mention the poor souls stuck installing, uninstalling, supporting, and developing for something as bad as we're expecting. Please only be Windows 2000 bad and not Vista bad!

Disaster scenario No. 3: Linus Torvalds is hit by a busLinux remains the most important open source project in the world, used in everything from smartphones to consumer electronics to appliances to the enterprise servers that power e-commerce worldwide. Even mainframes run Linux, as do the supercomputers responsible for the world's most advanced scientific data analysis.

Linus Torvalds is the undisputed benevolent dictator and project manager for the Linux kernel -- and no one knows exactly what would happen if he were incapacitated for some reason. There are succession plans of a sort in the Linux world, and other prominent developers already manage large chunks of the kernel, but without Torvalds' vision and direction, it's possible that Linux development could stall or fragment, which would be bad news for everyone.

Disaster scenario No. 4: Legislation against municipal fiber is enactedThe Man is at it again. Just like the early part of the last century, when utility companies tried to prevent the public sector from bringing electricity to poor people (unfair competition) and avoided bringing it themselves (poor people can't pay), Time Warner, Comcast, Verizon, and the rest are working with your state representatives to pass their "model legislation" to stop municipal fiber.

When the U.S. government brought electricity through the Rural Electrification Administration, it quickly saw unprecedented economic growth. Within a few years, most of the systems became profitable because the people who benefited from electricity became richer. With recent political change in North Carolina, even my state has now passed a law making it harder for municipal fiber to bring high-speed Internet to rural communities.

This kind of nonsense is a terrible problem for people in rural communities. Not only won't the state deliver high-speed Internet, but localities themselves are prevented from doing so. Someone needs to tell Time Warner and various state legislatures it isn't the 1930s anymore.

Disaster scenario No. 5: Oracle buys MongoDB; IBM buys CouchbaseWhile MongoDB isn't the only document database in town, it's certainly the best-funded and most widely deployed. Couchbase is the most obvious Pepsi to MongoDB's Coke, with a well-financed effort by open source and database veterans as it transitions from key-value to document with the impending 2.0 version.

We haven't seen too many open source IPOs recently, which means MongoDB and Couchbase are likely to get big and fat and acquired. While Couchbase, written in Java, is complementary to the suite of technology Oracle acquired with Sun, there's a reason I think Mongo would more likely go Oracle: It pays more for its open source acquisitions than IBM does.

If Oracle merely bought MongoDB, those of us who didn't want to pay Oracle rates would go to Couchbase. But yikes, what if IBM bought Couchbase around the same time? We'd be left with with the lesser-funded open source database upstarts and a lockdown of the fastest-growing and most exciting part of the industry.

Disaster scenario No. 6: ApplesoftNo, I'm not talking about the historic brand Apple used for software. I'm talking about the nightmare that would be the Apple-Microsoft merger.

A few years ago this would be unthinkable, but with Apple's hardware and software now a relatively less important part of its business, and Microsoft's dismal returns in the mobile space, this looks less like a regulatory nightmare than it once did. Sure, the Europeans would complain for possibly a whole cycle while Microsoft and Apple bought a few elections, but eventually the merger would go through.

The result would be a behemoth that would breathe new life into Microsoft's consumer business and give Apple credible plays in the cloud and server market. Applesoft's hardware would still be "cool" for fanboys, and Windows 9 could have a powerful new kernel. Distributors would be nervous, but Applesoft could always spin off its laptop hardware division. For developers, this would significantly reduce our real choices and create a powerful, locked-up market.

Disaster scenario No. 7: Oracle starts charging for the JDKOracle could start requiring license fees for the JDK from everyone but desktop users who haven't uninstalled the Java plug-in for some reason. This would burn down half the Java server-side market, but allow Oracle to fully monetize its acquisitions and investments.

Sun tended to create markets but never really figured out how to create products people wanted to buy. When I worked for JBoss, I felt Sun was an evil bully trying to tax us; in retrospect, it wasn't half as mean as it should have been. Oracle tends to destroy markets to create products it can fully monetize. Even if you're not a Java developer, this would have a ripple effect throughout the market.

As for alternatives: Node.js is in its infancy, Python won't conquer the world, Perl is something we're unlikely to go back to, and PHP is ... PHP. Ruby is the most likely beneficiary, but Oracle could laugh its way to the bank. I actually haven't figured out why Larry hasn't decided Java should go this route yet. Some version of this scenario is actually in my company's statement of risks.

Disaster scenario No. 8: Oracle buys Red HatThis one has been rumored for a decade. You might think that everyone at Red Hat would quit -- but who cares? Not Oracle! Did it care when the MySQL folks "forked off"?

The acquisition would certainly benefit Canonical, which despite being most people's favorite Linux distribution on the desktop, hasn't really made a splash on the corporate server. My company is one of the few multi-million-dollar operations that I know of that runs it almost exclusively.

Buying Red Hat would allow Oracle to start monetizing Linux and give it a server-side operating system that people still want; I'm not saying Solaris isn't good technically, but its market share was already in decline before the acquisition. The new Horacle (this would be the nickname internally, I promise) would have a much stronger cloud play. This would offer the consolidated stack that Oracle has long sought with its rather pathetic Unbreakable Linux play. Prices would rise. And you can bet the nature of Red Hat's contributions and investments in various open source initiatives would change.

Disaster scenario No. 9: New draconian copyright legislation is enacted A number of proposals have been floated or are actively floating around, in the United States and other countries, to enact new legislation -- nominally in the name of protecting intellectual property -- that would impose new restrictions on technology and grant new powers to the governments of the world. Most if not all of the bills are far too broad, overreaching, and draconian, and they'd almost certainly have a chilling effect on civil liberties and the advance of technology.

Disaster scenario No. 10: The NYSE gets hackedKnight Capital's $440 million loss and Facebook's recent glitchy launch have revealed how vulnerable our markets can be to software bugs. What about a more systematic and deliberate widespread attack?

What if you randomly redistributed funds from DJIA companies over a period of months, then slowly drained the money out of the indexes before staging a massive DoS attack? This is a variation on the "Superman/Office Space" scenario. Simply shutting down the market probably costs a pretty penny.

Disaster scenario No. 11: Monster cloud outageRecently Amazon suffered a well-publicized outage that affected everyone from Netflix to Instagram. On the hypothetical Internet Richter scale, this was maybe a 5. Having to wait a few hours to catch up on "Breaking Bad" is annoying, but it won't end my day.

On the other hand, the cloud is in its infancy, and outages give big customers the willies. The worse they are, the more companies will think twice about moving their services, data, and backups to the cloud. What if Amazon or Google really screws up and has a multiday event or, worse, the D word: data loss?

Disaster scenario No. 12: The bad guys win the war on general-purpose computing Cory Doctorow gave a talk recently in which he discussed the "war on general-purpose computing." In this war, special interests are actively trying to restrict the purposes for which we can use the computing devices we own. If we lose this war, it will be commonplace to buy PCs that can boot only one operating system or computing devices that refuse to run programs unless they're "blessed" by a corporation or government agency.

The "computers" we have access to will no longer be general-purpose tools that obey our commands and can be programmed to serve any purpose we wish. Instead, they'll become specialized tools we use as "black boxes." Devices will report on our activities (without our knowledge), restrict our usage, and record our data, all without our say in the matter.

This article, "12 industry disaster scenarios," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Keep up on the latest developments in application development at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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