I have rehearsed recent history here only partly to get it into the record. More importantly, it sets a background against which we can understand near-term trends and project some things about the future (I write in mid-December of 1998).
First, safe predictions for the next year:
The open-source developer population will continue to explode, a growth fueled by ever-cheaper PC hardware and Internet connections.
Linux will continue to lead the way, the relative size of its developer community overpowering the higher average skill of the open-source BSD people and the tiny HURD crew.
ISV commitments to support the Linux platform will increase dramatically; the database-vendor commitments were a turning point. Corel's commitment to ship their entire office suite on Linux points the way.
The Open Source campaign will continue to build on its victories and successfully raise awareness at the CEO/CTO/CIO and investor level. MIS directors will feel increasing pressure to go with open-source products not from below but from above.
Stealth deployments of Samba-over-Linux will replace increasing numbers of NT machines even at shops that have all-Microsoft policies.
The market share of proprietary Unixes will continue to gradually erode. At least one of the weaker competitors (likely DG-UX or HP-UX) will actually fold. But by the time it happens, analysts will attribute it to Linux's gains rather than Microsoft's.
Microsoft will not have an enterprise-ready operating system, because Windows 2000 will not ship in a usable form. (At 60 million lines of code and still bloating, its development is out of control.)
Extrapolating these trends certainly suggests some slightly riskier predictions for the medium term (eighteen to thirty-two months out):
Support operations for commercial customers of open-source operating systems will become big business, both feeding off of and fueling the boom in business use.
Open-source operating systems (with Linux leading the way) will capture the ISP and business data-center markets. NT will be unable to resist this change effectively; the combination of low cost, open sources, and 24/7 reliability will prove irresistible.
The proprietary-Unix sector will almost completely collapse. Solaris looks like a safe bet to survive on high-end Sun hardware, but most other players' proprietary will quickly become legacy systems.
Windows 2000 will be either canceled or dead on arrival. Either way it will turn into a horrendous train wreck, the worst strategic disaster in Microsoft's history. However, this will barely affect their hold on the desktop market within the next two years.
At first glance, these trends look like a recipe for leaving Linux as the last one standing. But life is not that simple (and Microsoft derives such immense amounts of money and market clout from the desktop market that it can't safely be counted out even after the Windows 2000 train wreck).
So at two years out the crystal ball gets a bit cloudy. Which of several futures we get depends on questions like: Will the Department of Justice break up Microsoft? Might BeOS or OS/2 or Mac OS/X or some other niche closed-source OS, or some completely new design, find a way to go open and compete effectively with Linux's 30-year-old base design? Will Y2K-related problems have thrown the world economy into a deep enough depression to throw off everybody's timetables?
These are all fairly imponderable. But there is one such question that is worth pondering: Will the Linux community actually deliver a good end-user-friendly GUI interface for the whole system?
I think the most likely scenario for two years out has Linux in effective control of servers, data centers, ISPs, and the Internet, while Microsoft maintains its grip on the desktop. Where things go from there depend on whether GNOME, KDE, or some other Linux-based GUI (and the applications built or rebuilt to use it) ever get good enough to challenge Microsoft on its home ground.
If this were primarily a technical problem, the outcome would hardly be in doubt. But it isn't; it's a problem in ergonomic design and interface psychology, and hackers have historically been poor at it. That is, while hackers can be very good at designing interfaces for other hackers, they tend to be poor at modeling the thought processes of the other 95% of the population well enough to write interfaces that J. Random End-User and his Aunt Tillie will pay to buy.
Applications were this year's problem; it's now clear we'll swing enough ISVs to get the ones we don't write ourselves. I believe the problem for the next two years is whether we can grow enough to meet (and exceed!) the interface-design quality standard set by the Macintosh, combining that with the virtues of the traditional Unix way.
We half-joke about "world domination," but the only way we will get there is by serving the world. That means J. Random End-User and his Aunt Tillie; and that means learning how to think about what we do in a fundamentally new way, and ruthlessly reducing the user-visible complexity of the default environment to an absolute minimum.
Computers are tools for human beings. Ultimately, therefore, the challenges of designing hardware and software must come back to designing for human beings—all human beings.
This path will be long, and it won't be easy. But we owe it to ourselves and each other to do it right. May the Open Source be with you!