I used to write a webzine, and one of the fun parts was to make a set of predictions near the end of the year. Usually I was right, only a year or two too early.
Well, here is my list for 2004 and onwards. I'll make my bold assertions first, and explain them afterwards.
1. Linux will wipe Windows off the commodity IT landscape. Like the tabacco firms, Microsoft will find itself assailed from all sides until it retrenches into a few core markets (in this case the US), and either falls apart or moves to new turf.
2. The most exciting firm to watch in 2004 will be IBM.
3. The killer mobile application of 2004 will be simple SMS. MMS, GPRS, WAP,... not important.
4. The most interesting market (both for consumption and production) in 2004 will be China.
5. There will be no significant financial recovery in 2004, but no further crash either.
6. The software world will discover code generation in 2004.
7. 2004 will herald a new technology revolution based around the battle between those who seek to control the price of technology, and those who seek to mass produce it. FOSS is just one of the symptoms of this battle.
OK, now my reasoning.
The most important driver in business is the cost curve that mass production creates. This is well known in IT as Moore's Law, but I believe it applies as much to software as it does to chips. The cost of producing software is a function of the quality and availability of pre-packaged pieces. I see this as a smooth curve where prices halve each year, just as for chips.
Inevitably this means that the software barons are already dead. It is difficult to sell software when your competitors make it better at half the price. It is impossible when your competitors make it ten times better at one hundredth of the price. We are not yet there, but we are moving that way.
Microsoft find itself on the wrong side of this curve: every improvement in software packaging and distribution - and I'm thinking of things like Debian packages - is a nail in the coffin of Microsoft's business model. Cheap, reliable, simple, powerful software is a terrible thing to fight against. We were surprised when Munich chose a FOSS strategy over Windows. But the dripping has turned into a steady stream, and soon it will be a waterfall, as institutions and governments around the world ask themselves three simple questions:
1.Do we really need the latest and greatest in software?
2.Can we save money by taking something simpler?
3.Will we be taking any serious risks?
And the answers are of course: no, yes, no. Enough for any decision maker. Add a little WTO pressure to reduce the use of pirated software, and the balance tips.
Anyone who still thinks Linux/FOSS can't compete against Windows has a shock coming. In my small company, I find myself responsible for installing machines. What used to be a complex business of finding the right device drives, the correct versions of applications, often in various languages, has now become an exercise in simplicity. Pop in the Xandros CD, install, download OOo, install, configure email, and give to user. Finito. If this works for me, a professional technologist, it most surely works for a billion late adopters around the world.
Microsoft's biggest weakness, and this is so shockingly obvious you wonder why they have not addressed it, is that they make products for the early adopters. Each release of Windows and Office sells on technological merit, not on stability or cost. And yet mass market consumers - which means everyone who does not care what's in the box, so long as it does what it should - buys on the basis of cost and economy.
Microsoft should have a series called "Windows Classic", "Office Classic", which sell for $49 and which provide 1999-vintage functionality in a smooth package that installs and runs on any hardware with no questions asked.
I still can't believe that plugging a new mouse into my Windows laptop results in five different dialog boxes, while plugging the same mouse into a Linux box results in exactly nothing except a half-second delay before it all works perfectly. And this is true for USB dongles, new network cards, DVD drives, etc. etc. etc.
Joe Normal, trying to start a small business in Ho Chi Min City, wants a PC that does exactly four things: email, web, office, and possibly chat. That is the global commodity IT market, and it's one that Microsoft does not "get".
IBM, on the other hand, gets this so well it's scary. They don't even need to produce an own-label Linux - though they do and will probably provide one for consumers eventually.
Now onto mobile information. I've been looking at the market in Europe, one of the more mature ones. It's no coincidence, but large suppliers still try to sell new products based on technological superiority. You may ask, "what other basis is there"? The answer is, "sell what people want." My firm makes SMS applications. Not simple ones, but fully interactive SMS gateways. Want to book a ticket via SMS? Want to find someone to share travel costs? Perhaps check what movies are on this evening? The more we look at this market the more we're amazed by it. Something like 70% of people in Belgium have GSMs and regularly send SMS messages. But they are offered almost no applications at all beyond logos, ringtones, and chat. My younger sister has no email address: she does everything by GSM. For many people today, their handset is their terminal, their only connection to the world of information. For these people, SMS is simple, obvious, and omnipresent.
In their rush to push growth, the operators have ignored this, and instead focus on new gadgets: video phones, portable cameras, 'picture chat', and so on. It's fun, and it will drive some GSM sales this Xmas, but it won't touch more than 2-3% of the user base. The concept of using SMS to recreate a kind of simple mobile internet is both so simple and so useful that I predict it will become a hit business in 2004: where people used to flash their web site address on adverts and business cards, we will see people flash their SMS site address instead. My company is just launching such a product - www.sms-at.com, you need a Belgian mobile phone number to play.
Now China. All I can say is look at the trade figures, the amount of exports, but more importantly, the amount of imports. China is no longer a virtual market, something that may happen one day. Today it already imports more than it exports, and if this is not a lesson in the benefits of trade, nothing is.
When two countries trade, both benefit, though jobs are often lost in the process. When the entire globe trades, there are real and long-term benefits, and I believe the benefits of the last ten years' globalisation will become clear as we see that ever cheaper goods and services make life ever cheaper in Europe and the US even if wages don't rise.
Code generation is one of my pet magics. True magic. Tools like GSL, which I've discussed before, turn the business of software development around from one of artistic creation to one of industrial production. I believe this is one of the most revolutionary technologies in software development. The increasing number of books on the subject, the increasing number of people who actively use this technique in their work, and discuss it in blogs and conferences... it looks like an awakening is in the air and with a little luck and hype, next year will see code generation move into the general awareness.
Lastly, the digital divide, the battle between those who think culture is something that can be owned, and those who believe culture has its own existence and that we're just its temporary guardians. Both sides are right of course, this is the nice thing about truths, there are so many to choose from. But the hoarders have been outfoxed by technology, the internet and the hundred-gigabyte hard disk. Game over, check mate, however you turn the egg around, it has been solidly cooked.
The nice thing about human nature is that it works all by itself.