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Workstation Wars: For the Next Generation its back to the original fight

By Andrew Pollack on 07/21/2004 at 04:35 PM EDT

The battle over how you’ll work at your personal computer is heating up again and the big players are aligning into sides on two distinct battles.

We're already pretty familiar with the first battle. Should software be "Open" and "Standard" or "Closed" and "Proprietary". These are oversimplifications of course, since the open standards aren't really all as open or useable as they could be, and the closed ones aren't really closed, they're just proprietary. The real truth is that if you're a little guy trying to compete on your merits with swift thinking and agile code, you want open standards but if you're a big successful vendor with products that make you money you need to "differentiate" those products to avoid having to constantly compete at the low end. This battle is really about how much control one dominant vendor can gain by leveraging powerful and successful applications in one area to encourage or even force the adoption of its software in others. In this battle, it seems to be Microsoft vs. everyone else -- but don't be fooled. Its only that way right now because Microsoft is on top of the biggest pile. The new Linux versions are fantastic to work with and really push Microsoft harder and hard to compete -- but at the workstation they're still playing catch-up and still letting Microsoft dictate the game. Open Office is a fantastic tool -- but isn't the whole reason it's so great simply that its a good enough copy of Microsoft Office that you can use it?

The other battle -- the more interesting battle -- is over where the smarts will actually be. Both the Microsoft direction and that of the Open Source community are largely in the same camp on this one. They see rich workstation platforms over which the user has dominion. The software lives locally, and customization is king. Microsoft wants to extend this to collaboration by essentially making it easier and more natural to share the things on your workstation with other people. Maybe even with some degree of security. On the other side are the rest of the big vendors -- IBM, Sun, Oracle, and their crowd see the rich client as very much tied to the host 'mother ship'. In this view, the coming Eclipse based rich client becomes the "uber-browser", bringing applications and data down from the big servers when needed, to be worked with in either connected or disconnected mode. This viewpoint holds that things on your workstation are not shared unless and until they get moved back up to the central repository where they can be properly managed. This divergence isn't new. When "IBM Compatible" computers started sharing files on central network file stores, Macintosh users saw the other side with "peer based" shared folders.

Microsoft, with their connected software strategy wants you to use their protocols (the .NET framework) to allow super-rich, locally controlled workstation software to create and manage "stuff" and then easily share that "stuff" through your own sort of publishing point. In that view, you control this point -- it works like the shared public folder on your old Macintosh computer. They want it to be as easy as saying "share this". My eight year old daughter, using her PC last night told me to put a picture on her email she just gets it from her 'My Pictures' place. Why? "Because that's where my pictures just always go." -- this is exactly my point. Microsoft wants to give her a "My shared stuff" kind of place, and with as little effort as possible for her to maintain who can see what on it.

IBM, on the other hand, wants to give you a rich client interface that is managed for you. Its the same wherever you go, and its largely freed from the need to manage a personal computer in any meaningful way. If you want to create something, the client software will know how to get the creation tools, where to put the finished product, and even how to manage a change process around it. This is very much the idea of the "Corporate Living Document" and makes sense if you've done collaboration work with Lotus Notes.

In the last big workstation wars, Apple believed that by making an easy to use and manage product and introducing it to people at home that they'd win the workplace. They thought people would bring in what was working for them and start using to make decisions. They were wrong. Computers at work were delivered from the top down. Resources were assigned, compatibility was a requirement. If you wanted to bring work home, you pretty much needed the same stuff at home. Apple lost that war and the world almost lost a really neat platform. Those compatibility issues have long since been dealt with and Apple's market share is in distinctive recovery now but the lesson cannot be ignored.

Neither of these strategies is as yet even close to fully realized. The software on both sides is immature and the battle for mind share is just beginning. If you're reading this, you'll probably change sides a dozen times over the next few years as this stuff firms up. Make no mistake, however, that this is the key battle for the next few years. There is no question in my mind that between these two, Microsoft's strategy will be more well liked in the user community at large. Microsoft has always been brilliant when it comes to understanding the needs of the person at the workstation even if they've fallen down so often when it came time to translating that to the enterprise. It remains to be seen if their unparalleled strength at the workstation is a better match against IBM's all powerful I.T. centric solutions than was Apple's nearly 20 years ago.

Food for thought
-- Andrew

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