Frankly Speaking: End of an Era

BOSTON (06/12/2000) - Is it time to start thinking about a post-Microsoft Corp. era? Not an era without Microsoft - that's not just unthinkable, it's plain silly. IBM Corp. didn't disappear in the post-IBM era, after Big Blue stopped being the single dominant force in data processing. Microsoft won't disappear if it stops being the single dominant force in IT. Even Steve Ballmer finally acknowledged that last week, a few hours before Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ordered Microsoft split in two. After months of describing such a split as a death sentence for Microsoft, Ballmer told Norwegian IT vendors that "we'll be fine either way. We'll move on."

No, Microsoft won't be gone. But for corporate IT, the end of the era of that dominant Microsoft Windows-PC-and-applications platform will be pretty scary stuff.

Think that's unlikely? Then you probably don't remember the days when IBM ruled the glass house. In the IBM era, the "standard platform" wasn't just the IBM mainframe. It was the IBM mainframe shop.

Sure, it was the 360, and Cobol, and JCL, and IMS. But more than that, it was the collection of procedures and practices the shop (and everyone in it) used.

Move a programmer or computer operator from one IBM shop to another in those days, and maybe 90% of the job would be exactly the same.

When the IBM era ended, that standard platform was gone. Sure, all the mainframes and languages and databases were still there. But the certainty of what it meant to work in an IBM mainframe shop was gone. Change jobs and maybe you'd have to learn some new CASE tool, or a relational database, or client/server, or a PC network.

Paradise lost? Hardly. All that new technology - and what came after it - revolutionized our relationship with users and our importance to the business.

It made IT phenomenally important and opened opportunities we once would never have thought possible.

But for anyone who valued the stability and predictability of data processing in the IBM era, the post-IBM era was terrifying. No wonder so many people fought against the PC for so hard and so long. Maybe they didn't know exactly what they were afraid of - but they were right to be afraid. For good or ill, it was the end of the world as they knew it.

Now we have a different standard platform. Windows offers nothing like the kind of standard the old glass house presented. Move from one IT shop to another today and you'll probably face different hardware, different languages, different procedures and practices, different philosophies of system development, different ways of dealing with users and a different relationship with the rest of the business.

But Windows and PCs and Microsoft applications will almost certainly still be in there somewhere. They're islands of predictability in IT - maybe the only sure thing left in most IT shops.

And if they stop being so predictable. . . . Feel that chill running down your spine? Now you have some small idea how those glass-house data processors felt.

That post-Microsoft era is coming. Microsoft knows it. That's why "Next Generation Windows Services" (or as it's sometimes called, "Next Generation Web Services") is so important to the company.

Other IT vendors know it too - that's why so many of them have stopped competing with those monopolistic Microsoft products and are more concerned with connecting cell phones to live data streams or setting up e-business alliances.

And deep inside, we know it as well.

But we'd better start thinking seriously about it - and soon. Because when that era ends, everything will be a little less predictable for IT - and a lot more terrifying.

Hayes, Computerworld's staff columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years.

His e-mail address is frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

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