By Gene Marks, originally posted on Forbes.com.
Editor’s Note: Gene Marks is a small business management columnist, author, and speaker who also owns and operates The Marks Group PC, a highly successful 10-person firm that provides technology and consulting services to small and medium sized businesses. The Marks Group PC, launched in 2004, has grown to help more than 500 companies and more than 2,000 individuals throughout the country. Gene writes weekly online columns for The New York Times and Forbes, as well as monthly and bi-weekly columns for Bloomberg Business Week and American City Business Journals. Intuit has, on several occasions, contracted Gene to provide marketing-related services.
Last week I finally, finally purchased a Motorola D3 smartphone. I’m loving it! And I’m loving Google! So you’d think that I’d be loving the news that Google is purchasing Motorola’s cell phone business, right?
I’m not. This is like the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire. And the beginning of technology’s dark ages. At least for many small businesses like mine.
Lots of reasons are given for the acquisition. Most experts believe that it’s motivated by certain patents that Motorola owns which will help Google defend itself against infringement lawsuits brought on by Apple.
ZDNet’s Jason Hiner agrees, but also offers this reason: “…it’s pretty clear that Google also wants to have the option of producing its own hardware devices so that it can build prototypes, concept hardware, and leading edge devices to demonstrate its vision and point its ecosystem partners in the right direction. With Apple’s continued success in mobile, BlackBerry’s large (albeit fading) market share, HP’s new hardware/software unification with WebOS, and now the Google-Motorola deal, it’s becoming clear that vertical integration is winning in mobile. Going forward, look for the latest, greatest, high-end devices to all be vertically integrated, while many of the low-cost, copy-cat devices will come to the market later and be made by mass market manufacturers like Samsung.”
This is all great for Google. But will this news help my small business? Unfortunately, no. The empire is breaking up. Chaos is approaching. Life, particularly for my business, is about to become more complicated.
Chart 1 (here)
Chart 2 (here)
No one can argue with the above two charts. PC shipments over the past few years have been consistently below the peak levels from the 1990’s. And other devices, like tablets and mobile phones, have taken off. This is the main reason why HP decided last week to get out of the PC business and focus instead on software to power all these gadgets. Workstations and servers are on their way to becoming generic boxes, waiting for the customer to install their operating system and applications of choice.
None of this is good news for small business. Like the people of ancient Rome we complain about our conditions and our leaders. We say we want better choices. But really we just want things that make life easier. And things that work. Inexpensively. Which is the way it used to be.
Because once upon a time there was just one evil empire and it was named Microsoft. Every computer shipped was shipped with Windows. And people complained about them all the time. The company faced anti-monopoly lawsuits from both individuals and governments. We frequently grumbled about Windows: its bugs, the blue screens of death, the bloatedness of it all. Its software was targeted by endless armies of hackers. Of course, these being more civilized times, no on attempted to assassinate its CEO. But pies were thrown. Competing operating systems, like Linux, were more like harassing barbaric tribes.
These were the days of Pax Microsoft. And during those days, technology flourished. Software developers developed software. Lots of it. And primarily for businesses. And business owners like me were more productive. Microsoft’s biggest selling product became Office. And other software vendors created applications for accounting, order entry, inventory management, communications and customer relationship management.
Of course, the Caesars weren’t perfect. And neither was Microsoft. Why? Their Windows software was flawed, annoying, frustrating and an oftentimes faulty platform for which to write software. But, like the bureaucracy of Rome, the system worked. It was stable (for the most part). It was consistent. And, like the Roman Denarius, it was accepted in just about every business in the country. Microsoft partnered with hardware companies but never owned them. They just wrote software for them. And we could buy software knowing that it was Windows compatible.
But now that’s all changing. Microsoft has slipped, and the Pax Microsoft era is coming apart. The Gauls and the Goths are invading. The world has gone mobile. And the empire is losing the mobile market to Apple and Google.
So now we no longer just have Microsoft Windows. We have Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems. More choice is good, yes? No. There is no one company writing software that’s runs all of our computers and devices. We now have three companies who have created three different and separate operating systems.
And now we have Google buying Motorola, so that (like Apple) the software and the hardware become as one. Before we know it, if we want an Android we’ll be “encouraged” to purchase a phone or other device manufactured by Google, just like we are now forced to buy iPads and iPhones for Apple software. How much time until Microsoft admits it can no longer be just a software company and purchases a big PC manufacturer like Dell so that their software can become as one with hardware too?
And then what? The empire breaks up. The technology world divides itself into three camps. And small business owners, many who do not have the resources to support all these different platforms, will need to make some choices. And live with them. So what will it be: Latin, French or German?
Software vendors will have to develop their products not for just one platform but for three. Most can’t afford to do this. These are not little “apps” for a smartphone. These are business programs which I need to manage my operations. Which means that if I choose, for whatever reason, to standardize my business on Google/Motorola/Android, then I will only be able to choose those applications written for that platform. I would need to replace the software that I already have for software that may be inferior, or lack features that I need to run my company.
And I’ll be limited as to what hardware I can purchase. For now, I can purchase PCs from a variety of different sources because I know they all run Windows and my business applications will be compatible. But in the future will I be forced to only purchase hardware manufactured by Apple because I run Apple applications? And will this hardware have all the features that I need? Will I have a broad choice of local support? Will it be compatible with other devices, like bar-code readers and document scanners that my business may require? Or will I be stuck? Stuck because I was forced to pledge my allegiance to one and only one King.
And what if I want to leave the camp? The Emperors of Rome didn’t much like those that switched sides. And neither will Apple, Google or Microsoft. Suppose, after a few years, I don’t like the software I’m using to manage my orders process. In today’s world, migration from one software application isn’t easy, but it’s do-able. Most major business software applications are Windows-based and run on similar databases like SQL. So data can be mapped and moved. Will this be the case if I want to move from an Android based order entry system to an Apple or Microsoft based system? Or will, by that time, vendors be so territorial that they will encircle their kingdoms with walls and moats, making data too proprietary to move somewhere else?
And then there’s integration. Because instead of solving the biggest problem that business owners have had since the dawn of technology, the end of Pax Microsoft makes it worse. Even in the world of Windows, most of us have suffered trying to make our accounting systems talk to our service systems and our service and accounting systems talk to our websites. And that’s not to mention our never realized dream of being able to quickly and inexpensively communicate financial information with our customers and vendors too. Most of us endure with entering the same data two or three times into disparate systems and hoping for the best. But at least these were all Windows-based systems. And as technology matured there was some hope that software developers would create applications that can one day make this integration a reality.
But these same developers are now distracted. They’re writing new apps for the Droid or iPhone. And the dream of having seamlessly integrated systems now seems unlikelier as Apple and Google rise to challenge Microsoft and break up the hardware and software infrastructure into competing camps. Maybe one day my Android-based applications and hardware will all integrate effortlessly. But it feels like we’re starting from scratch. And even if that does happen, what if I still want to keep that great Windows app for managing salesmen commissions but also want it to share data with my Windows based accounting system?
Some may say that these issues will all be resolved by The Cloud. But if that’s the case then why does every cloud based provider today have separate applications for mobile devices? Won’t they be forced to ultimately choose sides as well? And what about all those companies who prefer not to have their data delivered through a cloud based application because it doesn’t suit their business model? More choices. More complications.
I’m not saying that life during the Roman Empire was all bliss. And I’m not saying the Microsoft Windows era has been a perfect one for small and medium sized companies. Apple and Google make great products. Did I mention that I love my new D3? But I know my history. And when the Roman empire became fragmented the world entered a period of chaos and suffering. I’m concerned my company faces the same technology future.