What if Microsoft disappeared overnight?

The death of Microsoft wouldn't just affect economies – it would also affect people's everyday lives. So many systems around the world depend on Windows, from government institutions to hospitals, that without Microsoft providing the basis for all this infrastructure the effects could easily be life-threatening.

Enderle explains: "If just Microsoft the company failed, its software could remain in place for decades – Unix is effectively gone, yet it's still active in a majority of large companies today. However, if Windows were to somehow become compromised and fail, the impact on the world would be catastrophic.

"The majority of servers and around 90 per cent of PCs run this platform and related tools. If that product failed broadly, we could return very quickly to the pre-industrial age. Think Mad Max, literally. Let's be clear, however: given that security around the platform is both deep and diverse, taking it out this broadly would be harder to achieve than a true human pandemic. So, while possible, it's extremely improbable."

Should the improbable occur though, would the bigger technology firms be able to react fast enough to step into the gap?

Mannings' answer is short and sweet: "Yes, they will have a field day!" Enderle agrees: "IBM, HP, EMC, Oracle, Apple, and Google (with the anti-trust exceptions noted previously) could all likely weather this with different levels of pain, but all would be impacted, and likely harder than we currently realise. The market might move instead to create a super company – like IBM was before Microsoft came to be. The firms that could form that super company are Google, IBM, and possibly HP, Apple and Oracle – though these last few are more of a stretch."

Open source solutions?

Things aren't always that simple, though. It's never easy for a big company to change direction, and the time frames involved could easily stretch into months, if not years. If these other larger companies weren't able to react fast enough, it would provide a massive opportunity for open source to claim the territory that Microsoft previously controlled.

However, as Enderle points out, "Open source isn't an entity; it's a practice, and one that only works well in parts of the market. The more personal the technology, the less interest there is in open source. It might become more popular, but there's no governing body that has the strength to step in and keep vendors and software providers in line at this scale.

"Currently most open source platforms exist as an alternative to Microsoft. With no Microsoft, the threat holding them together would evaporate. Rather than benefiting, they would likely fragment and fail, benefiting companies like IBM, Oracle and Apple."

Mannings can see a way for open source to be utilised in this scenario, though: "Perhaps the bottom-up open source movement will be funded to create a more robust model. Think of the mobile standards such as GSM and 3G – they're open, but not in the sense that anyone can join in.

"It will take time, but the wait will be worthwhile: a rolling set of standards that competing companies can work to [will be created]. There will also be true free open source, but it seems unlikely that the community would have the resources to fully fill the shoes of Microsoft."

Even if the very nature of open source means that it wouldn't be able to provide a concerted solution, without Microsoft's influence, the way would be open for a flurry of original methods of doing things from independent developers.

So would this herald an era of more innovation from smaller players? Mannings believes so: "There would be a surge of innovation, and probably some new names would become big."

Enderle, however, takes a different view. "It could do, but returning an industry to what it was before Microsoft would take a lot of time. There might be more innovation, but there also would be more complexity and far less interoperability."

This seems likely to be an accurate prediction. Innovation would be happening in a world without the massive unifying role that Microsoft plays only too well. Without this, new computing methods from many different hands could easily become too disparate or unguided to be useful.

Mannings takes a positive view on this scenario: "There will be some problems but these will lead to opportunities too. Never waste a good crisis!"

Enderle foresees a larger problem: "The level of disruption would extend beyond just the industry and into power struggles between countries. The level of destabilisation would be extreme if it happened quickly, and the industry might not recover from it intact.

"Without Microsoft, Intel or some other major player would need to step in and coordinate the response, and even Intel doesn't have the breadth and skills to do this today. It might take as long as 10 to 20 years for the market to reach this level of stability again.

"Once the market had direction, though, growth could be higher than it is today, and the danger for America is that it might occur overseas – with China being the most likely foreign beneficiary.

"Currently China isn't yet ready to step up, but that will likely change dramatically in the next decade and well before the industry could again stabilise in the US. The US once had leadership in consumer electronics. That shifted to Japan, and then Asia in general; it once had leadership in trains, but that shifted to Europe, then Japan and it now resides in China. Just as the US displaced Britain as the most powerful nation last century, China is moving to do the same to the US. Microsoft, if damaged untimely, could be the tipping point in such a change."

Governments to the rescue?

All of these predictions of dramatic sea changes make it likely that the governments of the world would step in to help deal with Microsoft's disappearance.

However, as Enderle points out, "Government intervention has generally proven inadequate to this task [in the past], suggesting we would likely have a very big mess for a very long time."

But what if the impeding death of Microsoft could be foreseen? As its disappearance would have such huge consequences, it seems likely that the governments of countries more dependent on Microsoft's products would step in earlier to prevent it from failing.

Mannings agrees: "The US government may intervene to provide an organised wind-up to give time for alternatives to be provided. More likely, the company would be broken up and the parts sold off so that there would be continuity. As many government systems rely on Microsoft, there's a strong motivation to keep things going."

Enderle, too, is sure the US government at least would get involved: "Microsoft represents a massive amount of the US's positive international balance of trade revenue alone, and, with partners, most of the US tech industry. Microsoft would crater the NASDAQ and likely cause a cascading failure in other markets, which suggests it would not be allowed to fail."

Microsoft's unique position

With all this doom and gloom hovering over a world without Microsoft, it seems that, despite its many nay-sayers and sometimes niggly software, we should be glad that it's here to stay. So does this mean there's some truth in the statement, 'If Microsoft didn't exist, we'd have to invent it'?

Mannings says no. "In the early days of many industries there's a monopoly – Watt's steam engines, for instance. But then, after patents expire, innovation occurs and time passes there are many players and other dominant designs emerge.

"Watt's engines were replaced by more efficient high-pressure versions, and later by the gas engine. We're still in the foothills of the computer revolution and Microsoft is only a step on a long road. There's a good chance the Chinese, Indians and Russians will invent their versions [of Microsoft products] – they're probably already working on it!"

Enderle agrees. "Microsoft is unique. We don't find another company in this role in any other industry that I'm aware of, with the possible exception of De Beers for diamonds. It is a relatively unnatural event to have a parts vendor amassing the kind of power that Microsoft has amassed – typically power resides with the solutions provider.

"Both Microsoft and Intel rose to unprecedented power due to the unique nature of the technology industry. While Google's power may eventually exceed Microsoft's worldwide due to its control of information, even it is unlikely to be able to control the technology industry as effectively as Microsoft did in its prime. Had not IBM licensed DOS, there would likely be no Microsoft. Once gone, I doubt it will be replaced – I doubt it can be."