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The beginning of the end for Microsoft?

commentary Franklin Fisher, Massachusetts Institute of Technology economics professor, once said Microsoft's customers believed there were no serious commercial contenders to the Windows operating system. During the Microsoft-US Justice Department anti-trust trial in 1999, Fisher testified that this view was also shared by the software giant's hardware partners.

commentary Franklin Fisher, Massachusetts Institute of Technology economics professor, once said Microsoft's customers believed there were no serious commercial contenders to the Windows operating system.

During the Microsoft-US Justice Department anti-trust trial in 1999, Fisher testified that this view was also shared by the software giant's hardware partners.

While alternatives to the Windows operating system and Microsoft's cash cow -- its Office productivity suite -- have long existed, these products, including OS/2 and WordPerfect, failed to make a lasting impression on the IT community.

Fast forward to 2004.

Today, competitors to Microsoft, such as Sun Microsystems, are slowly but surely gaining ground at its expense and this could well mark the start of a mass customer exodus from Microsoft -- at least for select products. It seems the recurring complaints by Microsoft's clients over issues pertaining to security, reliability and the hidden cost of its offerings have fallen on the right ears.

Embattled enterprises looking for answers can perhaps find some solace in one Australian story -- how the New South Wales Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) hopes to save millions by ditching Microsoft.

Last week, the RTA announced the migration of 1,500 users across 120 offices from Microsoft Exchange to Sun Microsystems' Java System Messaging and Calendar Servers for e-mail and calendaring. The deal includes Sun's StarOffice productivity suite for word processing, spreadsheets and presentations, the Mozilla browser, and a backend consolidation exercise to Sun servers running on Linux. Financial details weren't disclosed.

Greg Carvouni, the RTA chief information officer, described the move as an effort to reduce "escalating software and maintenance costs." He later told ZDNet Australia he was simply tired of the constant barrage of viruses and vulnerabilities plaguing Microsoft's products.

These deficiencies were hurting RTA's bottom line and the rot had to end. Without Microsoft, Carvouni aims to realise savings of up to AU$2 million over the next few years.

The RTA decision is hardly surprising, though. Throughout his five-year tenure, Carvouni has been a consistent open-standards advocate so the writing has always been on the wall. Besides Australia, government agencies in Europe, Asia and Latin America have also adopted Microsoft alternatives or indicated a preference to move in that direction.

Linux-based PCs have been a huge hit in Malaysia's national computer-ownership scheme, far outstripping the sale of Windows machines. The Allied Irish Bank recently decided to migrate 7,500 users from Windows 3.1 to Sun's Java Desktop System. In Thailand, Microsoft will introduce a slimmed-down version of its Windows XP operating system in September -- a move to counter software piracy and the rise of Linux.

The problems facing Microsoft could well be the "perfect storm" it has been trying to avoid. Will weak products finally presage its downfall? Only time will tell but if you ask Carvouni, he'll probably say he's not anti-Microsoft ... just a man trying to keep his job.