Into the Future

I have rehearsed recent history here only partly to get it into the record. More importantly, it sets a background against which we can understand near-term trends and project some things about the future.

First, safe predictions for the next year:

I wrote the above predictions in mid-December of 1998. All are still holding good as of November 2000, two years after they were written. Only the last one is arguable; Microsoft managed to ship Windows 2000 by drastically curtailing its feature list; adoption rates have not been what they hoped.

Extrapolating these trends certainly suggests some slightly riskier predictions for the medium term (18 to 32 months out).

At first glance, these trends look like a recipe for leaving Linux as the last one standing. But life is not that simple, and Microsoft derives such immense amounts of money and market clout from the desktop market that it can't safely be counted out even after the Windows 2000 train wreck.

But there are also reasons to believe that Microsoft is going to experience serious problems in 2001 that aren't related to either Linux or the Department of Justice. As hardware prices drop, the 59% of Microsoft's revenues that come from selling fixed-price preinstallation licenses to PC OEMs is under pressure. Those fixed license costs represent an ever-increasing slice of OEM's gross margins; at some point, the OEMs are going to have to claw back some of that last margin from Redmond in order to make any profits at all. We know where the critical price point is from observing the appliance and PDA market; it's at about $350 retail. On previous trends, desktop prices will cross $350 going down well before midyear 2001—and when that happens, OEMs will have to defect from the Microsoft camp to survive.

Nor will it help Microsoft to respond in the obvious way by charging a percentage of the system's retail price instead of a fixed per-unit fee. OEMs can easily fiddle that system by unbundling expensive outboard components like the monitor—and even if they didn't, Wall Street would regard such a move as an admmission that Microsoft had lost control of its future revenues. One way or another, Microsoft's revenues look likely to crash hard long before DOJ gets a final ruling.

So at two years out the crystal ball gets a bit cloudy. Which of several futures we get depends on questions like: will the DOJ actually succeed in breaking up Microsoft? Might BeOS or OS/2 or Mac OS/X or some other niche closed-source OS, or some completely new design, find a way to go open and compete effectively with Linux's 30-year-old base design? At least Y2K fizzled...

These are all fairly imponderable. But there is one such question that is worth pondering: Will the Linux community actually deliver a good end-user–friendly GUI interface for the whole system?

In the 1999 first edition of this book, I said the most likely scenario for late 2000/early 2001 has Linux in effective control of servers, data centers, ISPs, and the Internet, while Microsoft maintains its grip on the desktop. By November 2000 this prediction had proved out pretty completely except in large corporate data centers, and there it looks very likely to be fulfilled within months.

Where things go from there depend on whether GNOME, KDE, or some other Linux-based GUI (and the applications built or rebuilt to use it) ever get good enough to challenge Microsoft on its home ground.

If this were primarily a technical problem, the outcome would hardly be in doubt. But it isn't; it's a problem in ergonomic design and interface psychology, and hackers have historically been poor at these things. That is, while hackers can be very good at designing interfaces for other hackers, they tend to be poor at modeling the thought processes of the other 95% of the population well enough to write interfaces that J. Random End-User and his Aunt Tillie will pay to buy.

Applications were 1999's problem; it's now clear we'll swing enough ISVs to get the ones we don't write ourselves. I believe the problem for 2001 and later is whether we can grow enough to meet (and exceed!) the interface-design quality standard set by the Macintosh, combining that with the virtues of the traditional Unix way.

As of mid-2000, help may be on the way from the inventors of the Macintosh! Andy Hertzfeld and other members of the original Macintosh design team have formed a open-source company called Eazel with the explicit goal of bringing the Macintosh magic to Linux.

We half-joke about `world domination', but the only way we will get there is by serving the world. That means J. Random End-User and his Aunt Tillie; and that means learning how to think about what we do in a fundamentally new way, and ruthlessly reducing the user-visible complexity of the default environment to an absolute minimum.

Computers are tools for human beings. Ultimately, therefore, the challenges of designing hardware and software must come back to designing for human beings—all human beings.

This path will be long, and it won't be easy. But I think the hacker community, in alliance with its new friends in the corporate world, will prove up to the task. And, as Obi-Wan Kenobi might say, ``the Source will be with us''.