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January 2010

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The New PC Market: Tough Choices in 2010

by Glen Emerson Morris
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The computer market is vastly different now than it was 10 years ago. Back then, Microsoft was the unquestioned leader in the personal computer market, Apple was barely alive, and Linux barely known outside of a small set of computer geeks. Today, Apple is the unquestioned premier innovator, with an ever increasing market share to prove it, Linux has become a household word, even with its small market share, and Microsoft is still recovering from releasing its most unpopular operating ever. In addition, there are several new mobile computing options of varying compatibility.

What this situation means for the small to mid-sized business is that there are more far more choices than there used to be, but making good choices is becoming far more difficult.

A new Vista
Windows 7 marked a turning point in the history of Microsoft. For the first time a major release from Microsoft was market driven, and not marketing driven. After several years of claiming that Vista was doing well in the market, a view not widely supported outside of Microsoft, the company gave up, listened to its customers, and rolled out an OS people actually found useful and usable.

As my earlier column “Vista Outlook Troubling” commented, Vista was deeply flawed because many of its features were included for the benefit of interests other than the customer. Vista was bloated with “trial” software that substantially increased the boot time of the computer, slowed it down considerably once it was running, and subjected consumers to weeks, even months, of notices popping up saying a demo was about to expire, blocking the user from doing anything with the computer until they closed the warning box. In addition, Vista had some of the most draconian, and inefficient, digital rights management software ever packed into a computer. Most fatally, Vista required substantially more processing power to run than any previous release, a problem compounded by Microsoft's wildly understating its minimum requirements. Vista was designed to make consumers buy a new more powerful computer to run it, and many people didn't have the money, or a real need, to upgrade.

Microsoft under siege
Unfortunately, listening to its customers may not be enough to save Microsoft. The biggest problem facing Microsoft now is that its two primary income sources, the Windows operating system and the Windows Office Suite, are mature products. MS Word has about all the features anyone can ask for, and in many people's opinion, far mare features than most people will ever need. Coming up with a compelling reason to buy a new version of Word is becoming a very difficult task. Much the same can be said for the Windows operating system. Few people want the operating system to do more, they just want it to be easier to use, and therein lies Microsoft's chronic problem. Unlike Apple, Microsoft never managed to integrate all its products into seamless, easy to use, experience.

The Vista fiasco proved that even the best funded marketing campaign can't make people buy a system they don't like. From here on, Microsoft will have to compete on issues like cost, compatibility and ease of use, and it's going to face some tough competition. Some people are opting to switch to Macs as they replace their aging XP systems. It may be too early to give up on Windows completely at this point, but having a mix of Windows and Mac systems makes a lot of sense. However, determining the exact ratio won't be easy.

Mac resurgent
Apple will likely have the best sales in 2010 it's had since its heyday some 20 years ago. Steve Jobs has totally eclipsed Bill Gates as the leading technology innovator, and is frequently described as America's greatest CEO for good reason. There has never been a better time to switch to a Mac for home or office use, and the reasons are becoming more compelling as time passes. Amazingly, Jobs keeps coming up with new and better reasons for businesses and consumers to switch to Apple products.

Apple's long anticipated tablet computer could well blow Amazon's Kindle e-book out of the water as the "cool" way to subscribe to commercial publications. Unlike the Kindle, Apple's tablet will offer high definition color, supporting full color magazines instead of just newspapers. In effect, Apple's tablet may do for the publishing industry what it's iPod did for the music industry. However, it may take a year or two to achieve the market share of Kindle, so for the immediate future publishers will have to chose between supporting either the Apple tablet, the Kindle, or more expensively, both.

Linux ready for prime time
After years as a “for geeks only” operating system, Linux is finally becoming as easy to install, configure and use as the Mac and Windows operating systems. Recently I set up a Ubuntu 9.10 system from scratch, and found it was about as easy a process as one could hope for. Starting from a blank hard drive, I was able to install the operating system and get the computer on the Internet, streaming BBC news audio, burning DVDs, and talking to my Windows machine, in less than an hour.

Ubuntu can be downloaded at no cost from Ubuntu.com. I opted to spend $5 on eBay for a six DVD set loaded with hundreds of free additional applications and utilities, including the free OpenOffice Suite. Also included were several databases, mostly based on MySQL. Limited testing showed no problems using OpenOffice to open and edit MS Word documents, or in sending the edited docs back to MS Word.

The major decison with the Linux option is which flavor to go for. Unlike the Mac and Windows operating systems, which are tightly controlled and highly standardized commercial products, the Linux open source model means there are many versions of Linux available, i.e. Red Hat, Ubuntu, SuSe, and they all have different advantages and disadvantages. Figuring out which one is right for your business is no easy task.

Mobile computing shootout
Few areas in the computing world offer the diversity found in the mobile devices market. Unfortunately the competition is really just beginning and it's hard to see any one operating system, or mobile device, gaining a dominant share of the market for several years. Buy with care.

Cloud Computing
Cloud computing is living proof that calling a duck a pig won't stop it from quacking. Cloud computing is just a new marketing phrase for an old technology, Internet-based client/server services. It can be appropriate in some instances, but despite its name, it's nothing new.

Every three to five years the client/server model is given a new name, and hyped beyond belief as the next big thing. Previous names have included mainframe/dumb terminal, thin client, software as a service, and client/server. One of the hallmarks of this model is that you lose control of both your data, and what it costs you to process it. Neither of these ideas is very good, and both should be avoided if possible.

Time to make room for two operating systems
These days every office should have at least one non-Windows machine as an alternate “emergency” system. It's easy for a computer virus to spread to all of the computers in an office network if they're all running the same operating system. The resulting system wide infection could possibly take your business down and completely offline for hours, if not days. Having a Mac/MS Office or Linux/OpenOffice system available for these situations is both an affordable and highly desirable option. In case of a major disaster, you'll still have basic functionality and access to the Internet. If you think this may be going to extreme, consider what going through a full day's work at your office without a working computer would be like. Just trying to work these days without Internet access could be a major headache.

The only question is whether your emergency alternate system should be a Mac or a Linux system. If you have the money, buy a Mac. If money is a major issue, keep a Windows machine you would otherwise toss and install Ubuntu or some other Linux OS on it. You might even consider having a Linux backup system for all your key employees.

A decade from now
After going through a decade of a Microsoft dominated computer market, we're finally getting some real choices. Even more importantly, we're finally being listened to, even by Microsoft. Like never before, the computer market will be what we asked for, not just what they tried to sell us. Let's hope we find the wisdom to ask for what we really need.


Glen Emerson Morris was recently a senior QA Consultant for SAP working on a new product to help automate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley law, an attempt to make large corporations at least somewhat accountable to stockholders and the law. He has worked as a technology consultant for Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius.





Copyright 1994 - 2009 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved


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