It was suggested that I write my column this week about my pick for Product of the Year. It wasn't exactly my readers who suggested this, of course. My inbox isn't full of messages saying, "Please, tell us which of the many products you mentioned last year is the very, very best one."But, hey, I'm Mr. Team Player, so I'm happy to devote my column this week to my own personal gold medal. Because I'm also Mr. Give 'Em Heck, however, I'm going to confer the award on a product that I didn't even write about last year.
The Window Manager 1999 Product of the Year is Linux.
"Why," you might ask, "would a known Windows sympathizer give an award to a product that competes with Windows NT?"Linux wins because it's challenging Microsoft's No. 1 server software position.
Many "breakthroughs" were supposedly going to crack Microsoft's over-90 percent market share in x86 OSes. We were all going to be using US$500 "network computers" by now. Or we'd be using tablets, or Newtons, or wireless wearable computers. It hasn't happened yet. There are plenty of working examples but they are more the exception than the rule.
Linux, by contrast, is changing the playing field. Its share of the server OS market is growing, not contracting. Its "open source" philosophy lets it evolve in ways Microsoft products can't. And because it's free (or nearly so), Microsoft can't easily kill Linux by giving applications away.
Linux isn't perfect. Support is still an issue. And fixes add up to patches, although you can use automated installation utilities.
But Microsoft surrendered the Product of the Year race, in my book, by default.
Microsoft has left such gaping holes in Windows that real competition may be the only way to rebuild it into a trusted platform.
-- Ship now, security later. Plunging headlong in pursuit of its "Put the Internet in Everything" credo, Microsoft has opened up severe risks to users of consumer Windows. It has consistently set the defaults on its products in such a way as to leave novices nearly defenseless against hackers on the Web.
My Nov. 1, 1999, column reported that many high-speed Web users who turn on Windows' File & Printer Sharing are vulnerable to any teenager who can port-scan, then log on to their system (see http://www.infoworld.com/printlinks).
-- Color me blue. Windows NT is better than 95 and 98 as far as security. But NT still suffers from too many instances of the Blue Screen of Death -- software errors that bring reliability down. And too many minor NT configuration changes require rebooting.
Windows 2000 will dramatically improve these and other problems. I can't wait to upgrade all of my various machines. But this is an area in which Microsoft is catching up with Linux, not setting a higher standard.
-- You will like our integration. Microsoft's decision to make Internet Explorer a hard-to-remove feature of Windows 98 -- in direct defiance of an earlier order by Judge Jackson -- has opened it to endless legal battles that will inevitably sap its executives' attention and thus its company's innovation.
Microsoft got away with this because its legal counsel convinced two out of three judges on an appeals court that Windows 98 "isn't an upgrade of Windows 95" and therefore was in compliance with the previous order. You know a company's in trouble when legal hairsplitting replaces common sense.
Linux can be criticized in many ways. But with its openness, low cost, and emphasis on security and reliability, Linux may well grow to be a much more serious alternative to Microsoft products than it already is.
When Microsoft is forced to compete on equal footing -- without the ability to dictate prices and terms to the rest of the industry -- we'll see its products make big strides in usability and stability.
(Brian Livingston's latest book is More Windows 98 Secrets (IDG Books). Send tips to email@example.com. He regrets he can't answer individual questions.)