How much longer will Microsoft be able to maintain its dominance of the IT industry through the operating system?
That's the key question on most minds these days as Redmond preps for the launch of Windows 7, even as we snicker at the latest failed attempt at viral marketing -- the ill-conceived Windows 7 Launch Party campaign.
But even though most early reviews of 7 are positive, or at least less negative than the feedback from Vista, the fact remains that IT technology is shifting at such a rapid pace that the next few years could bring about what was considered unthinkable for more than two decades: that Microsoft could lose its top-dog status in the IT software industry.
As Redmond Channel Partner's Lee Pender points out, Microsoft has been beating back the competition for some time. As long as those rivals were pitching other operating systems, this has been no problem. But these days, Windows is under assault from virtualization and cloud computing, both of which threaten to take away Windows' primary function -- to provide the base-level environment for higher-level applications.
At the moment, VMware is the more direct threat because it gets between Windows and bare-metal hardware, allowing users to select the OS as easily as they choose their preferred Web browser. But the cloud, largely in the form of Google, poses a more significant long-term challenge in that it provides the first credible Windows alternative for providing the kinds of applications on which organizations have come to rely.
To its credit, Microsoft is not blind to all this. It has come out with its own virtualization platform, Hyper-V, and its own cloud service, Azure. But in both of these areas, it is the late-comer to the party, and it might be quite a struggle to get its technology on an equal footing. It was only last month, after all, that Microsoft added such key components as Live Migration and Cluster Shared Volumes to Hyper-V, two areas that VMware has had covered for quite a while.
Now, the latest word is that Microsoft is close to releasing the fruits of a two-year project called Barrelfish aimed at an operating system optimized for multicore processing. The system is said to use a multikernel distributed operating system, with the hope that it will better match the increasingly distributed nature of enterprise infrastructures. The most detailed statement to date is a paper issued by Microsoft's European research team, in which they describe the system as hardware-neutral with explicit inter-core communications capabilities and an ability to foster replicated rather than shared states.
The technology behind the system will no doubt be impressive once the final version is released, but in the end, it's still an operating system. It's important to note that virtualization platforms like ESX and Hyper-V can already accommodate multicore technology with little or no trouble. So why bother developing a brand new OS when you already have the makings of a working multicore platform in hand? Or from the user's perspective, why deploy a new OS when both virtual and cloud platforms are already in place?
Having dominated the industry for so long, however, Microsoft knows a thing or two about facing up to challenges. Until now, most of those challenges have come on Microsoft's own turf from organizations trying to gain traction with operating systems of their own through lower cost, better features or plain-old better service and performance.
This time, though, the challengers are operating on an entirely new playing field, and Microsoft will have to hustle if it wants to get in on the game.