Bill Gates’s Nightmare

Bill Gates felt he could now sleep snugly, knowing that the U.S. government would not break up his company. So one night last week he pulled the comforter over himself, sank deep into his pillow, and settled down for a well-deserved snooze.

But then he began to dream.

He dreamt of a little blue-and-white box from Intel called AnyPoint. It combined the functions of a digital subscriber line (DSL) modem and router for home networks. It also included a firewall to protect the home from hackers.

“But look inside,” a voice commanded Bill in his dream. “What most people don’t know is that AnyPoint’s software runs under Linux, and its main circuit board has two PCI expansion slots on top.

“What could use those slots?” the voice asked. “Why, a tiny server could use those slots.

“We’re talking about a few chips handling system administration routines and a graphical user interface (GUI). This would also have to run under Linux because Windows 2000 Server, at $1,199, is simply impractical. AnyPoint itself costs about $300. That’s why it, too, must run Linux.”

Suddenly, Bill saw, the Linux monster was inside the home. If it could run home networks, it would also be available to run home automation tasks. “These,” the voice reminded him, “are two of the biggest new niches of the early 2000s.

“Once a homeowner has Linux, uses Linux, and comes to like Linux (thanks to Intel), why wouldn’t she want to buy more Linux software,” the voice asked, “especially since the base system is free while Microsoft charges up the wazoo for Windows?

“And if a server is just a few chips running on top of a modem (with storage handled elsewhere), what is a computer anyway? Plug in the right adapters for X-10 or HomePlug networking, and suddenly everything is on your network — the lamp, the VCR, anything that runs on electricity. And that little box, that AnyPoint, can run it all under Linux! Aha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!”

Suddenly, Bill awoke in a cold sweat. His eyes were wide with fear because he knew this was not just a dream.

For 25 years, we’ve defined computers in terms of typewriter-like keyboards and TV-like displays. This is the space Windows dominates. But computers don’t have to be that — keyboards and TVs are just interfaces. When computing is released from these shackles, it’s no longer defined by software but by hardware.

Perhaps computing is no longer even defined by Microsoft, because Microsoft’s operating systems are loaded with overhead designed with TVs and keyboards (and mice) in mind. It’s not just the software that’s designed for 20th-century computing, it’s also the pricing and marketing that’s designed that way. When you charge over $300 for an operating system per computer, and $1,200 per server, you’re limiting your market to machines defined by TVs, keyboards, and mice.

Throughout its antitrust troubles, Microsoft argued that technology changes and that there was nothing to prevent some other operating-system vendor from taking control of the market. Critics scoffed, and (secretly) Microsoft investors scoffed as well.

But what if they were right?

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