Competition? In the Software Market?

Reading the fine print is well worth the effort.

Could it be? Could genuine competition be returning to the software industry? Its early, but there are some positive signs.

Conventional wisdom says the Microsoft antitrust proceeding produced no useful result. But the company is easing pluggable substitution of third-party middleware modules in the next service packs for Windows 2000 and Windows XP. Its a small step, but its part of Microsofts compliance with the terms of a consent decree between it and the Department of Justice, and it wouldnt have happened without the stinging rebuke of the U.S. Court of Appeals almost a year ago.

Conventional wisdom says Netscape has lost any hope of regaining significant share of the Internet user community, but Version 7.0 of Netscapes browser—beneficiary of the open-source Mozilla community process—narrows the gap that had opened up between the browser pioneer and competitors Microsoft and Opera.

Conventional wisdom says that Microsoft Office has an unbreakable hold on the desktop, but aggressive competition from Suns StarOffice and ThinkFree Office—not to mention the pressure of the open-source OpenOffice—may push enterprise buyers to question the high cost of staying on Microsofts upgrade path.

With front-office managers newly sensitive to issues of security and with back-office chief financial officers beginning to ask tougher questions about returns on IT investments, theres reason to believe that many more products will be able to get hearings for their stories: tales of lower acquisition cost, reduced support burdens, nonproprietary file formats, freedom of desktop operating system choice and escape from server operating system lock-in strategies.

Maybe, too, theres a silver lining in the scandals brewing in California and other states, where inappropriate conduct in the sale of Oracle software to state governments has been alleged. Those state governments are finding that reading contracts fine print and insisting their rights be respected is well worth the effort.

All in all, there is reason for encouragement. The best guarantee that things continue to head in the right direction is that IT pros continue to be tough customers.