It's the thought experiment we all like to engage in. What would life be like without Microsoft Windows? To listen to the free open source software crowd, the demise of Windows -- and by extension, Microsoft's hegemony over the PC universe -- would signal a kind of rebirth for information technology. Software would finally be free of the corporate shackles that have stifled innovation and dragged down the best and brightest among us.

The withdrawal of the Redmond giant's steady hand would cause today's computing landscape to tear itself apart at the seams, with application and device compatibility and interoperability devolving into the kind of Wild West chaos unseen since the days of the DOS big three: Lotus, WordPerfect, and Ashton-Tate.

And don't believe that the Web will somehow mitigate the impact of Windows' demise. Although Google talks a good story about supplanting traditional compute models with a Web-centric paradigm, the truth is that the folks from Mountain View are no less sinister when it comes to grandiose plans for world domination. If anything, the rise of Google -- or any dominant cloud-computing player -- should be perceived as a potential threat to IT independence. As the saying goes, never put all your IT eggs into a single vendor's basket.
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Client applications: Kiss consistency good-bye

The client application landscape will be almost unrecognizable in a post-Microsoft world. The depreciation of the legacy Windows API, coupled with the move to an entirely Web-based delivery model, will open the floodgates of innovation -- and create massive headaches for support personnel, who must now contend with the rich variety of UI designs and implementations that define the Web application experience.

Developer tools: Bloody purges and API turf wars will shape the new standards

As with client applications, the developer tools landscape will be fundamentally altered by the inevitable decline of the Win32 API. Programmers will face a plethora of new and potentially critical design decisions, including how to create a workable UI in a world where the old Windows rules no longer apply. The potential for freedom of expression and true innovation will need to be balanced against the reality of having to test early and often to ensure that your latest idea for a revolutionary new interface paradigm still plays in Peoria.

Hardware ecosystem: Chaos until a new overlord rises

Perhaps the most powerful ripples of the post-Windows shockwave will be felt in the PC hardware and peripherals marketplace. The lack of a dominant OS target will cause the once homogenized device driver landscape to fracture, with vendors chasing after the popular platforms du jour while neglecting their legacy installed base. Plug and play will be replaced by "plug and pray" as frustrated customers struggle to match devices to their respective OS choices, while wondering if they'll regret their selections once the next tide of disruptive development rolls in.

Abandon all hope?

The picture painted here is indeed grim: Chaos. Confusion. A descent into the very ugliness that defined personal computing before Microsoft's ascendancy.

However, there may still be hope on the horizon. Google may prove to be a better steward of the post-Microsoft leadership mantle than predicted here (though its handling of the recent China debacle doesn't instill confidence). Perhaps Google will help to establish standards for the presentation of application content and data through Web-centric user interfaces. Even the move to a non-Windows-centric hardware ecosystem may prove less disruptive than imagined -- provided the current trend toward integrated, all-in-one devices (netbooks, tablet PCs) continues.

Maybe things will work out for the best. Or maybe -- and this is the scenario which is considered most likely -- Microsoft will continue to co-opt each emerging, paradigm-shifting technology and leverage its billion-strong Windows installed base to keep software and hardware vendor communities focused squarely on that shiny, four-colored logo. As a person who favors stability over chaotic, disruptive change, you should know which future you’re rooting for.