Why Linux is like Lotus 1-2-3

Old-timers may remember when Lotus 1-2-3 ruled computing --- it was the world's premier spreadsheet, and by itself was responsible for many PCs being snuck into enterprises for the first time. But Lotus 1-2-3 has practically vanished from sight, and the reason why may disturb many fans of Linux.

Lotus 1-2-3 was released in early 1983, and quickly became dominant, far outselling the previous spreadsheet market leader VisiCalc. It ran, like virtually every other piece of software in those days, on DOS.

Microsoft at the time also sold a spreadsheet, called Multiplan. Rumor has it that a few people actually bought a copy. I never met anyone who did, though --- or at least admitted to it.

If you told anyone at the time that Microsoft would one day own the world's best-selling spreadsheet, and Lotus 1-2-3 be used by fewer people than live in Wasilla, Alaska, they would have most likely asked whether you had forgotten to take your medication that day.

So what happened? How did Excel become completely dominant, while Lotus 1-2-3 lost its entire market?

First, Windows happened. People forget Windows 2, but Microsoft released Excel for Windows 2.05, not long after it released a version for the Mac. Lotus ignored Windows and didn't bother to create a Windows-based version. And when it did create one, 1-2-3 didn't take advantage of the Windows GUI. Windows 3.0 came along, Excel began outselling 1-2-3, and Microsoft delivered the coup de grace when Excel was folded into Microsoft Office.

Lotus hasn't been the only victim of Microsoft coming to a market late, then ultimately monopolizing it. WordPerfect was once the dominant word processor. Harvard Graphics was once the dominant presentation program. And once upon a time, Netscape was the browser that everyone used.

As all that makes clear, Microsoft may not be the world's greatest innovator but it is brilliant at targeting existing or rising markets, and ultimately dominating them. And that's what I believe it will ultimately do with netbooks.

As I've written previously, Microsoft is worried about Linux's approximately 30 percent market share of netbook sales for two reasons. First is that the netbook market is growing dramatically. Second is that if people get used to Linux on netbooks, they may consider buying Linux-based desktops.

Because of that, it designed Windows 7 to be a Linux-killer. It's lightweight enough to run on netbooks, and will have touchscreen capabilities, which is ideal for netbooks because their keyboards are so small. ASUS has already announced Windows 7 versions, including one with a touchscreen.

That's just the beginning. When Windows 7 hits, Microsoft will spend enormous amounts of money promoting Windows 7 netbooks, and probably ensure that Windows 7 netbooks have capabilities that Linux ones don't.

Because no company owns Linux, there will be no competing marketing for Linux netbooks. The inevitable will happen as it did with 1-2-3, WordPerfect, and all the others --- over time, Linux netbook sales will decline, and Windows 7 netbook sales will soar.

I don't expect Linux netbook sales to disappear. There will always be a niche for Linux netbooks. But within a year of the launch of Windows 7, their sales will have fallen significantly. Between now and the launch of Windows 7 will be the high point for Linux netbook sales. After that will come the slow but inevitable decline. [blogs.computerworld.com]


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