This year turned out to be the year of not just of promise but of a fair amount of delivery too -- surprisingly enough for an industry that's big on promises.
Vista v Linux
Perhaps the biggest was the launch of Vista, which finally hit the streets at the start of 2007. And what a damp squib that turned out to be, with IT managers and enterprises generally refusing to have much to do with it -- or at the very least, hardly jumping up and down for joy.
Part of the reaction was prompted by the fact that Vista's hardware requirements are pretty stringent, and desktops generally seem to be fairly old, as they're not being upgraded as frequently as they used to be before Y2K. And your average desktop is plenty fast enough for most people, with the advent of cheap SATA drives and the trusted computing chip being arguably among the few major reasons for upgrading. The other reason is that, despite the new interface and the re-arranged furniture, Vista has prompted many to argue that it brings little new to the party. Why bother, is the oft-heard refrain.
And of course that's a disruption in the market, which should mean an open door for Linux. Yet despite a shiny new GPL -- we're at v3 now, do stay awake at the back -- desktop Linux has yet to arrive en masse, unless you live in Germany. But that didn't stop Dell and others launching Linux-based PCs. The success or otherwise of that move has yet to be determined but I'd wager that fewer than one percent of its machines don't pay the Microsoft tax.
No, Linux on the desktop isn't there yet. Instead what's happening is that organisations are staying put and primping up what they've got. XP is pretty robust and, with the right set of policies and third party software, it's pretty secure too. It's Vista's biggest rival out there, as Microsoft was forced to acknowledge in October when it lengthened the venerable OS's lifespan.
Blades: IBM v HP
Another deliverable this year was the blade server chassis for SMBs. Blades constitute the fastest-growing chunk of the server market -- and it's owned almost exclusively by IBM and HP. They spent the year taking potshots at each other: 'our blades are cooler than yours' was the gist of the shouting match. It's a pity that IBM, which was first to start shouting about its box, has yet to deliver one, while HP quietly got on with marketing, selling and shipping its analogous product, cutely called 'Shorty'. Actually it wasn't so quiet, as an IBM video posted on YouTube showed, since HP's model-aircraft-inspired fans do make one hell of a racket.
VMware v everyone else
Blades are all to do with packing servers into ever-smaller spaces while ensuring that they don't go into meltdown. A key complementary technology is of course virtualisation, with VMware retaining the market leader's crown in December which sat firmly on its head in January.
But VMware hasn't had it all its own way. While its technology is generally acknowledged by IT managers and analysts to be the most flexible and robust out there -- and it certainly appears to have garnered the biggest swathe of third party vendors in support of its products -- others have come and taken tiny bites of its market share.
Virtual Iron and Xen seem in particular to have made the most noise, along with Parallels, which started the year as SWsoft but renamed itself in December. By then, Xen had disappeared, swallowed up by Citrix in what most observers saw as a canny move for a company whose core technology has seemed somewhat stuck in the mud over recent years. That'll liven the desktop virtualisation business.
All the non-VMware offerings work on slightly different virtualisation technologies with the main feature alleged to be performance in exchange for OS flexibility. In an era when server hardware performance is not much of an issue unless you're crunching numbers for the City, this is hardly a big stick with which to beat up VMware -- as its robust market share attests. Rather, at least one company -- Virtual Iron -- is overtly using price as its weapon.
And of course Microsoft is on the way, and plans to ship its hypervisor, now named Hyper-V, early in 2008. That really will put the moggie among the pigeons and we'll be watching developments there with particular interest.
But we shouldn't get too carried away with virtualisation technology. After all, most servers and desktops remain firmly wedded to the idea of one application, one box -- even service providers who report that their customers are twitchy about having their software running in a VM. They see the software running in the same machine as that of their rivals -- and panic slightly. But you can expect that to change as the pilot schemes started over the last 18 months mutate into production environments.
Follow the money
Software companies didn't all fare well though. Microsoft lost its epic battle with the EU and had to cave in on the issues of bundling Windows Media Player separately, and sharing interoperability information about Windows with its rivals.
And SCO, long seen as the bête noir of the software industry and which seems to be on its last legs. The company has endeared itself to no-one -- not even its customers -- by suing all and sundry for stealing its code while being unable to produce evidence to back up that assertion. The sands have all but run out of the hourglass. It'll not be missed.
On the other end of the seesaw was VMware, whose parent company sold 10 percent of it in one of the industry's most eagerly-awaited IPOs. The share price sky-rocketed, making the mild-mannered duopoly leading the company insanely rich -- on paper at least.
More hardware: Intel v AMD v...?
Back to hardware for a sec, and we saw small gains being made in CPU technology with Intel let off the hook by AMD's fumbling of the ball. It had manufacturing and shipping problems with this year's new chip, and its figures sank deeper into the red. Here's hoping it recovers fast, as Intel innovates well under competitive pressure.
But innovation wasn't the whole story. One of the most exciting stories of the year was the rebuilding of Colossus, the world's first computer, at Bletchley Park, where smart code-breakers kept the Atlantic shipping lanes open during the dark days of WWII, as well as cracking the German high command's codes after D-Day. That was Colossus's job. It's a pity that the 60-year-old, purpose-built design couldn't quite beat a modern PC in a decryption challenge. That would have been a great story. It did come a fairly close second though...
2007 was a fascinating year with some great technologies coming to the fore. The prospect of a battle royal between VMware and Microsoft will keep us riveted -- especially as price is bound to be an issue. Meanwhile, expect centralised desktop computing to be a bigger trend next year -- the launch of a number of rather good thin and smart clients this year presages it. And who knows, there are straws in the wind which suggest that we might see a common blade server format. Yeah, right.
Have a great Christmas and New Year.