microsoft reconsidered

I've been thinking about Microsoft recently, and thinking about how the trajectory of Microsoft fits in with the trajectory of information technology in general.

A lot of people in the free software world are very anti-Microsoft, given some of the agregious anti-competitive activites they use, and general crappiness of their software. And while I agree that MS is no great gift to computing, it's always seemed to me that they're johnny-come-lately to the non-free software world (comparatively speaking AT&T and the telecom industry has done way more to limit and obstruct software and digital freedom than microsoft, I'm thinking.) But this is an akward argument, because there's no real lost love between me and Microsoft, and to be honest my disagreement with Microsoft is mostly technologcial: microsoft technology presents a poor solution to technical problems. But I digress.

One thing that I think is difficult to convey when talking about Microsoft is that "The Microsoft We See" is not "The Core Business of Microsoft;" which is to say the lion's share of Microsoft's business is in licensing things like Exchange servers (email and groupware stack) to big organizations, and then there's the whole ASP.NET+SQL-Server stack which a lot of technology is built upon. And Microsoft works licensing in ways that's absurd to those of us who don't live in that world. A dinky instance (ten users?) of Windows Server+Exchange for small corporations easily starts at a grand (per year? bi-annually?) and goes up from there depending on the size of the user-base. I would, by contrast, be surprised if Microsoft saw more than 50 or 60 dollars per desktop installation of Windows that consumers buy. [1] And I suspect a given installation of windows lasts three to five years.

I don't think it's going to happen tomorrow or even next year, but I think netbooks--and the fact that Microsoft won't put anything other than XP on them--and the continued development of Linux on embedded devices, and the growing market share of Apple in the Laptop Market (and the slow death of the desktop computing market as we know it,) all serve to make any attention that we give to market share of Windows on the desktop, increasingly less worthwhile. This isn't to say that I think people will flock in great numbers to other platforms, but...

I think what's happening, with the emergence of all these web-based technologies, with Mono, with Flash/Flex/Silverlight/Moonlight, with web-apps, with Qt running cross platform, with native GTK+ ports to windows and OS X, is that what you run on your desktop is (and will continue to become) more and more irrelevant. There won't be "the next Microsoft," because whatever you think of the future of IT, there isn't going to be a future where quality software is more scarce, or harder to produce than it is today.


So this brings us back to servers licensing, and something that I realized only recently. In the Linux world, we buy commodity hardware, sometimes really beefy systems, and if you have a scaling problem you just set up a new server and do some sort of clustered or distributed setup, which definitely falls under the heading of "advanced sysadmining," but it's not complex. With virutalization it's even easier to fully utilize hardware, and create really effective distributed environments. At the end of the day, what servers do is not particularly complex work in terms of number crunching, but it is massively parallel. And here's the catch about Windows: developers are disincentived to run more than one server, because as soon as you do that, your costs increase disproportionately with regard to the hardware. Say the cost of a production server (hardware) is 4k and you pay 2k-3k for the software. If at some point this server isn't big enough for your needs, do you: buy an almost-twice-as-good-8k dollar server with a single license, or just shell out another 6k-7k and have a second instance? Now lets multiply this times 10? Or more? (I should point out that I'm almost certainly low balling Software licensing costs.)

At some point you do have to cave and pay for an extra Microsoft license, but it makes a lot of sense from an operations perspective to throw money at hardware rather than distributed architectures, because not only is it quicker, but it's actually cheaper to avoid clusters.

Microsoft, the company that made its money in microcomputer software has backed itself into being the "big iron" computing business. Which is risky for them, and anyone. Sun Microsystems couldn't make it work, IBM kills in this space (and Linux mainframes are in the 50k-100k range, which doesn't look as absurd in light of the calculations above.)

Anyway, this post has been all over the place, and I'm not sure I can tie it all together in a neat bow, but I think its safe to say that we live in interesting times, and that this whole "cloud thing" combined with the rapidly falling price of very high-powered equipment changes all of the assumptions that we've had about software for the past twenty or thirty years. For free software as well as the proprietary software...

[1]There's a line in the Windows EULA, that says if you don't agree with the terms and aren't going to use the windows that comes installed on your computer that you can get a refund on this if you call the right people for your machine's distributor. I've heard reports of people getting ~130 USD back for this, but it's unclear how much of that goes to Microsoft, or to the support for MS products that OEMs have to provide.
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