The ubiquitous Microsoft has supplanted other as king

"You'll never get fired for buying IBM." For years, this was a precept in the
systems community. Now it's the Microsoft Corp. label that protects the information
technology manager from customer dissatisfaction and management censure.

Microsoft has replaced IBM as the computer security blanket for many information
technology specialists. Windows 95 and NT Workstation are joining MS Windows, Word, Excel
and Powerpoint on a great majority of federal desktops.

What happened to the competition? IBM's OS/2 is an also-ran, regardless of its merits.
Unix, beset by factions and flavors, is losing its grip on the multitasking operating
system market. Windows NT, running on a wide range of hardware platforms, has taken the
role that Unix was expected to play as the common-denominator operating system.

This generation of Microsoft products is pitched to those tasked with bringing order
out of the chaos of personal computing spread throughout an organization. Only 20 years
ago there was just one manufacturer of PC operating systems, and it wasn't Microsoft.
Digital Research Inc.'s CPM operating system was used on most PCs sold in the 1970s, but
Digital Research has slipped into oblivion.

Three years ago I asked if Microsoft could go the way of Digital Research. Would
Microsoft find the transition to 32-bit architecture as treacherous as DR's move from 8-
to 16-bit chips? Or could Microsoft jump from personal computing to networked, multiuser,
client-server and distributed processing?

With an agility belying its multibillion-dollar size, Microsoft leapt from the desktop
to corporate computing. Capitalizing on the popularity of the company's PC products,
Microsoft strategists employed an ingenious approach to connectivity. They used standards
when it suited them, developed new ones when it was to their advantage and ignored them
when it was in their interest. Microsoft embraced Structured Query Language and Internet
standards, created Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) and Object Linking and Embedding
(OLE), and ignored the Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA).

Once monochrome blue, corporate computing has become a crazy quilt of incompatible
pieces barely held together by desperate system engineers and network administrators. Many
mission-critical applications have downsized from the mainframe to the desktop. New
mission-critical systems sprang up on the desktops of end users who refused to wait until
the central applications development shop got around to writing the application in Cobol.

Why didn't Unix step in? Unix lacked focus, while Microsoft applied a consistent
strategy. Judging from the many weeks needed for someone to gain NT systems certification,
NT is not really simpler than Unix. Although Unix was the seasoned veteran of the 32-bit
processing market, IT managers discovered there is no single Unix, but rather dozens of
flavors of Unix, each with a different user and applications interface. Many agencies had
difficulty hiring Unix experts or growing them from within.

IT managers and end users both face the challenge of delivering personal computing
applications across the organization. Despite their radically different perspectives,
these two groups have one thing in common: their familiarity with Microsoft applications.

Once having wrested their applications from the purgatory of software development
backlog, end users often distrust centralized solutions. But thanks to NT's familiarity,
IT managers can sell Microsoft networking solutions to the skeptical. More and more
federal IT managers are betting their chips on Microsoft.

Greater reliance on Microsoft may be an unintended result of recent procurement
reforms. Liberalized purchasing procedures and decentralized buying will bring diverse
hardware platforms into federal agencies. However, the big indefinite-delivery,
indefinite-quantity buys are the only remaining opportunity for an alternative operating
system to claim a large chunk of business.

For the growing volume of credit card and open market buys, virtually the only common
denominator will be Microsoft Office--front office and BackOffice. The competition will be
left to operate in Microsoft's shadow, snatching what market share it can. Microsoft
controls the Windows applications programming interface and can give loyal developers a
head start in the race to market.

It's not simply a matter of the playing field not being level. Not only does Microsoft
decide the location of the goal line and width of the goal posts, Microsoft has become the
game. For now.

Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal
information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at

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