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How did we all end up with Windows?

The Microsoft 'default' phenomenon

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Reg Reader Workshop It's amazing how many people who have Microsoft Windows everywhere look flummoxed when asked whether Windows is their "standard" for desktop computing.

The reason they are thrown by this question is typically because they haven't thought about it that way before. In all likelihood, they never actually made a proactive decision to select Windows, in the sense of looking at alternatives and making a conscious objective choice. So how did they end up with it?

It's an example of a phenomenon that we come across time and time again when looking at how people have arrived at the IT landscapes they have today, and if you explore it a little further, it becomes clear the key to a lot of Microsoft's success is establishing as many of its products as possible as the "default" when it comes to decision making.

Just like the default value for a field on a form or a column in a database is the value used when you don't specify anything else, so Microsoft Windows, Office, SharePoint and so on are the defaults used in the absence of any alternative being explicitly selected in their respective domains.

A few conversations with "alternative" vendors who bump into Microsoft in various ways have highlighted the phenomenon to us recently. One of these is a company called Recommind, which you may not have heard of unless you are in the legal profession, but has been very successful at delivering enterprise search solutions into big law firms and the legal departments of large pharmaceutical companies and the like.

During a chat with Craig Carpenter, VP of marketing, the question was raised of whether we were seeing lots of organisations standardising on the enterprise search capability embedded in SharePoint, as Recommind is beginning to spread its wings beyond legal into the broader enterprise search arena.

When we pointed out that it was more a case of defaulting than standardisation, we got into discussing the challenges faced by vendors in differentiating their specialist solutions when people have already ticked the box for a particular area of functionality based on some Microsoft capability that has become pervasive by, well, default.

Other conversations have gone in the same direction. Meridio, for example, which overlays a pretty complete set of compliance capability over the top of SharePoint is constantly having to explain that when Microsoft ticks the "auditing" box on the product spec sheet, that doesn't mean that all of your compliance needs are dealt with. Similarly, we recently spoke with Spotfire, a vendor with a very nice platform for publishing intuitive analytical capability to a broad audience, and the story there was the difficulty in explaining that Excel is not the be-all-and-end-all of data analysis.

Standard settings

Standing back a little, there are basically two schools of thought on the Microsoft default phenomenon. One says that it is outrageous that unthinking people let Microsoft get away with it by simply "going with the flow" and not bothering to even look at alternatives. Others take the more pragmatic view that you might as well accept the Microsoft default in many areas as it will probably do or is already doing the job, and this frees you up to focus your time and resources on more pressing and challenging areas where selecting the right solution really does matter.

To put it another way, when the business is screaming for new functionality to support the call centre, the supply chain, or to deal with the latest set of regulations to hit your industry, can you really justify taking time out to explore the merits of Desktop Linux over Windows, or OpenOffice over Microsoft Office, let alone undertaking a potentially costly and disruptive desktop migration?

But before we run away with the idea that the Microsoft option is always just the "good enough" default, we have to be aware that while it sometimes takes time for the Redmond giant to get there, when it does, what it comes up with is often very good. Some of the stuff it is doing in the areas of systems management, business intelligence, collaboration, and so on shows it can compete with best of breed players on a function by function basis, not necessarily everywhere, but in enough places to keep customers on board and gradually expand that default footprint.

What exactly is good enough?

In the meantime, the reality is that many vendors have come to the conclusion that it is not worth trying to fight the Microsoft default phenomenon – it's far more effective to just accept and work around it. Recommind, for example, will happily snuggle its advanced search engine into a SharePoint environment, and Meridio compliance functionality is designed to be embedded into Microsoft Office.

Even strategic competitors play this game too, e.g. IBM's latest Sametime unified communications solution is designed to integrate seamlessly into a Microsoft as well as Lotus environment on the basis that it isn't likely to convert the world from Exchange and Outlook to Domino and Notes any time soon.

The tricky question in all this is knowing when it makes sense to go with the Microsoft flow and when to stop, think, and evaluate. This is obviously a function of circumstances and the problem at hand. In our recent BI research, for example, we found that as organisations were looking to deliver management information out to a broader audience, it made sense to acknowledge that generic office tools, Microsoft Office in the vast majority of cases, were going to be the most common delivery mechanism.

But what do you think on this whole topic? Are there areas like desktop operating systems where a pervasive default is a good thing to drive consistency, economies with regard to skill sets, etc? Are there areas where the default phenomenon is definitely not desirable? And what about other vendors like Cisco that's so often the default for networking, Sage for small business accounting, etc?

We'd appreciate your views in the discussion below. ®

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