Sunday, December 13, 2009

My Ever-Decreasing Dependence on Microsoft, aka My Growing Dependence on Community and Open Source

Ten years ago I was an IT executive at a Fortune 500 financial services company, and I had overall responsibility for all the desktop and server technology that ran our internal applications. At the time we were on the leading edge of Microsoft technologies, and had rolled out Windows NT-based desktops to the entire company along with hundreds of Windows servers that ran everything from our corporate email to our internal CRM application. I was a staunch proponent of Microsoft during this time, as not only were their solutions a lot cheaper to run than the alternatives at the time (mostly UNIX-based) but the tight integration between Windows-based apps and the relative simplicity of dealing with a single platform seemed to make a lot of sense to me. Plus, some of their apps were clearly the best at the time, e.g. Microsoft Exchange which arguably still provides the best email experience out there.

Fast forward now to present day. I am now the co-founder in a Web 2.0 startup with less than 40 employees, and like most startups we try to do as much as we can on the cheap. How much Microsoft technology am I using today? Well, I am still quite dependent on my Windows laptop which is now running the latest and greatest OS, Windows 7. And I do spend a great deal of time within the Microsoft Office suite, whether it's managing my calendar and email or working on slides for a presentation. But that's pretty much it. Our major IT expense outside of people costs are the hardware and datacenter fees associated with running our website, but outside of that our IT expenses are close to zero. Let's look at some of the details.

The Wigix website is run completely on open source, mainly the LAMP stack plus some Java that is required for our search engine, which is also based on open source. The corporate IT types may shudder at the thought of relying on the community for support instead of going with one of the big players (e.g. IBM, Oracle), but my experience has been that the community provides a level of support and interaction that often exceeds that of the big software companies. And from an installation, integration and ease-of-use standpoint open source tends to be far easier to deal with than their licensed software counterparts. We are not in the minority here, as nearly all startups are heavy users of open source technology. BTW, does anyone even care about IIS anymore?

Like all other companies we are quite dependent on email. While I would love nothing better than to have the rich experienced associated with Exchange, I find that the free mail service provided by Google Apps (based on Gmail) is more than sufficient for our use. In fact, in this day and age of "real-time" I believe most people place a higher priority on accessibility and ease-of-use over pure functionality. Google has been nothing short of masterful on this front. I still use Outlook in order to access my mail, because I never got used to the way Gmail threads its discussions. But my fondness for Outlook is diminishing over time as well...right now it is the one app that routinely seems to bog down my laptop. Some of my employees have been pleading with me to switch to Thunderbird or another open source solution. I may eventually do that, probably at the same time I ditch my Blackberry Curve and switch to the upcoming Google Phone.

Another good example is the web browser. Up until 2 years ago I used Internet Explorer exclusively, as I felt I needed all of its rich functionality, all of its toolbars and plug-ins, etc. But when Chrome came out I decided to give it a try, and I haven't looked back since. The speed and simplicity of the browser seemed to outweigh everything else, and I realized that I didn't even really miss all the add-ons and extensions of IE. In fact, in the time it just takes to launch IE 8 on my laptop I could bring up Chrome and already be browsing a few websites...seriously. And now that Chrome supports extensions and does so in an elegant manner that does not bog the system down there is simply no reason to ever go back.

Microsoft has a huge challenge in front of itself competing with free. For sure, they can feel secure for awhile that the Fortune 500 types will continue to provide a steady revenue stream for them, but for how long? Except for Windows itself and the Office suite I've completely removed my dependency on them, and I suspect it won't be too long before I no longer have a need for Office either. And I have to think that many others feel the same way that I do too. This is unfortunate, because despite my commentary I've always had much admiration for the company, its leadership and the innovative technology they've brought to the market over the years.