Internet likely to supplant Windows

In a post-PC world, Microsoft case will be moot, experts predict

November 07, 1999|By Michael Stroh and Mark Ribbing | Michael Stroh and Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

Will Microsoft Windows go the way of the abacus?

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson issued the first part of his decision in the government's antitrust case against Microsoft, finding that the software giant has a monopoly in the operating systems that act as the brains of computers worldwide.

But even as the court mulls what should be done about Microsoft and its popular operating system, companies are tapping the Internet to create technologies that might someday make Windows -- and possibly the personal computer -- a high-tech has-been.

Some believe that, in time, the case against Microsoft may even be seen as pointless.

"The PC world's fear that Microsoft would just rule all of technology has really diminished since the case started," said John Robb, the director of Lincoln, Mass., technology consulting firm Gomez Advisors Inc.

"Nobody owns the Internet," he added. Not even Microsoft.

Of course, just as hulking mainframes are still in demand, few think PCs or Microsoft Windows will disappear overnight.

"The PC has been something of a Swiss army knife. It's shown great resilience in adapting to the use people want it for," said Dell Computer Corp. spokesman John Thompson. "We don't see that changing."

Fueled by plummeting prices, computer sales are humming.

"As long as there are PCs, then Windows will be around," declared Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies Inc. in Campbell, Calif.

But industry titans are starting to talk openly about the dawn of a "post-PC" era.

"The PC is dead," IBM Corp. Chairman Lou Gerstner proclaimed earlier this year.

The forces driving this change, say analysts, are twofold: the rise of a new class of devices known as "information appliances" and the push to put more software on the Web.

Over time, analysts say, these forces could dilute Microsoft's dominance of the desktop.

Cheaper alternatives

Cheaper and less complex than personal computers, information appliances are gadgets designed to do one or two things and do them well -- such as Web browsing or e-mail.

"People want something very much like their TV. You press a button, and it works," said Rob Enderle, an analyst at Giga Information Group in Cambridge, Mass.

International Data Corp. forecasts that shipments of information appliances will catch up to consumer PC shipments in 2002 and swell to 10 times their volume before the end of the decade.

These devices are already trickling into stores.

Cellular phone makers such as Nokia and Sprint Corp. are pumping out phones with e-mail and other interactive capabilities.

And forget running to the desktop to log on: How about Internet access on the stove top? Even now, appliance makers are dabbling with wired refrigerators and ovens.

"Why should I have to boot up my PC to get to the Web and look up a recipe?" said Enderle. "I can do it just as easily from my fridge."

Even game machines are muscling in on the PC's turf. The new Sega Dreamcast, for example, comes with a built-in modem and optional keyboard for browsing the Web and sending e-mail. Sony's forthcoming PlayStation II, meanwhile, is expected to have a supercharged microprocessor; a digital versatile disc, or DVD, drive; two universal serial bus ports; and space for two PC circuit cards -- making it a computer in all but name.

Comdex offers glimpse

Next week's Comdex computer show in Las Vegas, the technology industry's premier showcase of expected trends, will offer a glimpse of other information appliances in the works.

Start-up InfoGear is planning to show off iPhone, a telephone that doubles as a Web browser and e-mail station. National Semiconductor will display its WebPAD -- a tablet-like wireless device that makes it possible to surf from the bathroom.

PC makers aren't far behind. Compaq Computer Corp. has announced it will use Comdex to unveil a stripped-down Web PC that doesn't use Windows. Press a button, and -- bam -- you're online. Gateway, Hewlett-Packard and others are working on similar machines.

"We intend to have a new generation of Internet devices, from desktops to palmtops, that are going to be built around different simplified platforms that will have customized functions [and] wireless mobility," Compaq spokesman Alan Hodel said.

Another trend taking shape on the Internet that might someday wrest power from Microsoft is Web-based software.

The idea is simple: You keep programs not on your PC but on the Internet.

People are already using Web-based software -- perhaps without knowing it.

Free online e-mail services such as Microsoft's Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail have millions of subscribers. In the past year, companies have launched Web sites -- both free and fee-based -- where you can map out your road trips, plan your day on interactive calendars and crunch your tax returns.

Web software's advantages

Boosters claim moving software to the Web offers consumers and businesses the same advantages as car leasing: You always get the latest and greatest product and don't have to worry about maintenance.

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