What Would Life Be Like Without Windows?

It's the thought experiment we all like to engage in. What would life be like without Microsoft Windows? To listen to the free open source software crowd, the demise of Windows -- and by extension, Microsoft's hegemony over the PC universe -- would signal a kind of rebirth for information technology. Software would finally be free of the corporate shackles that have stifled innovation and dragged down the best and brightest among us.

Such thinking is naïve, at best. Rather than freeing IT, the demise of Microsoft would plunge the industry into an apocalyptic tailspin of biblical proportions -- no visions of hippie utopia here. The withdrawal of the Redmond giant's steady hand would cause today's computing landscape to tear itself apart at the seams, with application and device compatibility and interoperability devolving into the kind of Wild West chaos unseen since the days of the DOS big three: Lotus, WordPerfect, and Ashton-Tate.

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And don't believe that the Web will somehow mitigate the impact of Windows' demise. Although Google talks a good story about supplanting traditional compute models with a Web-centric paradigm, the truth is that the folks from Mountain View are no less sinister when it comes to grandiose plans for world domination. If anything, the rise of Google -- or any dominant cloud-computing player -- should be perceived as a potential threat to IT independence. As the saying goes, never put all your IT eggs into a single vendor's basket.

But come, let us ponder together the implications of a world without that shiny, four-colored Windows logo. A world where standards are fleeting and where creativity and innovation have run amok. A post-apocalyptic vision worthy of the full Roland Emmerich disaster porn treatment. Here, in the spirit of the History Channel's "Life after People" series, I present my vision of life after Windows.

Client applications: Kiss consistency good-bye The client application landscape will be almost unrecognizable in a post-Microsoft world. The deprecation of the legacy Windows API, coupled with the move to an entirely Web-based delivery model, will open the floodgates of innovation -- and create massive headaches for support personnel, who must now contend with the rich variety of UI designs and implementations that define the Web application experience.

Basically, you can kiss consistency good-bye. With developers free to create their own interface primitives, many arbitrary decisions will worm their way into the larger UI consciousness. Steps to complete even basic tasks -- for example, manipulating and formatting lists of data -- will vary widely among implementations. And while common Web metaphors (hyperlinks, form fields) will continue to function as expected, more exotic constructs -- like the Webified version of a tools palette -- will take on increasingly diverse modes of interaction. You'll still click on things (or, more likely, touch them on screen with a finger or stylus), but the resulting actions will be anything but predictable.

Cross-application integration will be another sore spot. With OLE/COM/VBA out of the picture, the job of linking data between disparate applications will fall to a mixture of JavaScript and various cloud-hosted APIs and resources. In some cases -- most notably, suites of applications from a single vendor -- this integration will occur seamlessly on the back end. However, without a robust, widely adopted standard for data exchange, such integration will be difficult to achieve between the various vendor-specific silos that will make up the future cloud computing fabric.

One bright spot in this post-Microsoft client application future will be the elimination of the traditional software distribution model. No longer will IT shops have to track and manage a huge library of installed, stand-alone applications. With everything streaming from the cloud, the days of corrupted MSI packages and nasty DLL-hell scenarios will become a distant memory. The flip side of this equation is that the capability of working "offline" will also become a thing of the past. Your entire application infrastructure will be wholly dependent on uninterrupted connectivity to the cloud, making the Internet itself your new single point of failure.

Bottom line: Expect increased support and training costs as users struggle to master common functions across disparate applications. You may also want to update your disaster planning to include the pre-apocalyptic nightmare scenario where a backhoe operator takes out your now cloud-dependent IT infrastructure with an errant swing of his mighty shovel.

Developer tools: Bloody purges and API turf wars will shape the new standards As with client applications, the developer tools landscape will be fundamentally altered by the inevitable decline of the Win32 API. Programmers will face a plethora of new and potentially critical design decisions, including how to create a workable UI in a world where the old Windows rules no longer apply. The potential for freedom of expression and true innovation will need to be balanced against the reality of having to test early and often to ensure that your latest idea for a revolutionary new interface paradigm still plays in Peoria.

One of your first challenges will be achieving the level of UI richness that you became accustomed to in the pre-decline Windows era. AJAX, CSS, and HTML will have come a long way since the days when YouTube and Facebook were household names. However, these and similar Web technologies will still be restricted by the limitations of the underlying document model. And with the world's regulatory agencies eventually banning Adobe Flash (and similar RIA solutions) for the good of the Internet -- which was collapsing under the stress of a gazillion animated Viagra ads -- you may find your options for creating a compelling UI to be limited to strategically placed GIF images, DIV tags, and some clever use of HTML table borders and shading.

Another consideration will be how to integrate any newly designed application with the broader Web. Popular back-end data exchange APIs will abound, each with its own camp of fervent supporters, so you'll need to choose wisely. The last thing you want is for your world-changing killer application to be relegated to obscurity due to a lack of interoperability with the rest of the cloud.

On the plus side, the demise of Windows means you'll never again have to worry if the user has the correct version of a critical DLL or library installed so that they can run your application. Likewise, the chicken-and-egg debate over the .Net framework will be finally resolved (in favor of the chicken). However, the days of the "standardized" UI will be over, making the job of creating applications that work consistently, and which interact with both the user and other applications in a predictable manner, that much more challenging.

Bottom line: Expect much confusion as the newly cloud-centric world reorders itself through a series of bloody purges and API turf wars. Navigating this minefield of fleeting pseudo standards and technology dead ends will help to separate the wheat from the developer chaff. Only the strong will survive.

Hardware ecosystem: Chaos until a new overlord rises Perhaps the most powerful ripples of the post-Windows shockwave will be felt in the PC hardware and peripherals marketplace. The lack of a dominant OS target will cause the once homogenized device driver landscape to fracture, with vendors chasing after the popular platforms du jour while neglecting their legacy installed base. Plug and play will be replaced by "plug and pray" as frustrated customers struggle to match devices to their respective OS choices, while wondering if they'll regret their selections once the next tide of disruptive development rolls in.

In this chaotic world of hyperinnovation, vendors will seek to align themselves with the perceived market leaders of the day. Products will be judged not by their features or design quality, but by how many "works with x" or "ready for y" logos the vendor manages to squeeze onto the product packaging. Shopping for a new product will become a sick game of Sudoku, with customers scrambling to align the various component values into the correct sequential pattern. Success equals finding a group of complementary products that all sport at least one common logo program certification -- sort of the new Holy Grail of post-Windows IT.

The good news is that nature abhors a vacuum. In time, new players will emerge to redefine the PC hardware ecosystem around their particular platforms. This, in turn, will cause a shakeout among the software and hardware vendor communities, with those who bet on the wrong platform falling by the wayside. But the real question will be: What kind of force will this newly ascendant leader wield? Will it follow in the footsteps of Microsoft and use its standards-setting power to level the playing field? Or will it take the 1980s-era IBM approach and try to consolidate its death grip through proprietary lock-ins and similarly anticompetitive practices?

Bottom line: Just because Windows is out of the picture doesn't mean that you should expect a renaissance period of hardware innovation. The post-Microsoft world is just as likely to be a chaotic nightmare, full of competing vendor fiefdoms and walled technology encampments -- in other words, a return to the real Dark Ages of PC hardware.

Abandon all hope? The picture I've painted here is indeed grim: Chaos. Confusion. A descent into the very ugliness that defined personal computing before Microsoft's ascendancy.

However, there may still be hope on the horizon. Google may prove to be a better steward of the post-Microsoft leadership mantle than I'm predicting here (though its handling of the recent China debacle doesn't instill confidence). Perhaps Google will help to establish standards for the presentation of application content and data through Web-centric user interfaces. Even the move to a non-Windows-centric hardware ecosystem may prove less disruptive than I'm imagining -- provided the current trend toward integrated, all-in-one devices (netbooks, tablet PCs) continues.

Maybe things will work out for the best. Or maybe -- and this is the scenario I consider most likely -- Microsoft will continue to co-opt each emerging, paradigm-shifting technology and leverage its billion-strong Windows installed base to keep software and hardware vendor communities focused squarely on that shiny, four-colored logo. As a person who favors stability over chaotic, disruptive change, I know which future I'm rooting for.

This article, "Life after Windows: What happens to tech if Microsoft dies," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments on Windows and Microsoft at InfoWorld.com.

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