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Imagining life after Microsoft

As the software giant continues to slide, it's depressing to think what the technology industry would be like without everyone's favorite punching bag.

The Web is abuzz the past few days with Microsoft layoffs, with a whiff of severe Microsoft vulnerability in the air. Microsoft's problems may well result from its dogmatic insistence that Vista isn't rubbish, as Gartner suggests, but that will provide small consolation to the 5,000 employees set to be laid off.

Just a momentary blip that Microsoft will soon right? Possibly, but have you checked the job boards recently? A quick search reveals that more than 115 new Linux-related jobs have been posted since January 1. (Not that Windows jobs are in short supply.) Companies like Qualcomm have posted more than 100 Linux jobs in January alone, and I'm hearing similar numbers from other employers.

Unlike Windows, one of the most compelling aspects of Linux is the fungibility of Linux skills across employers. Linux is Linux is Linux, which means that my embedded Linux skills put to use for Sony, for example, could tomorrow be made effective for Cisco Systems' new Linux-based router, or for corporate IT's newest Red Hat or Suse Linux server.

That's power, and it's sapping Microsoft's strength. Still, I can't help but worry about life after Microsoft.

Who will be the software industry's new monopolist that we love to hate? Who will the open-source community revile? Who will become the new shorthand for all that is wrong (and much that is right) in software?

Google? Maybe. Its increasing power and sometimes slippery hold on its "don't be evil" mantra could make it the big player everyone bands against. Cisco? Powerful but still a bit bland. IBM? Nah. It had its chance decades ago and is content to mint billions of dollars without dominating the industry.

I like to compete against Microsoft. It's a tough competitor. I would miss it. I don't want Microsoft to "go softly into that good night, but rather to rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Microsoft has helped reset customer expectations about quality and cost of software. Now Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer suggests that the economy is foiling its profitability as "the economy (resets) to a lower level of business and consumer spending."

Could it be that the world is resetting to life after Microsoft?