Steve Ballmer will soon be leaving his post as CEO of Microsoft, and speculation will be rampant about his potential replacement. Whoever Ballmer's successor is, he or she will be taking over the company in a much different world than when Ballmer took the reins in 2000.

Most notably, at that time, everybody used Microsoft products all day, every day. Windows was on every personal computer and laptop, along with many back office servers. Associated applications, such as Microsoft Office, also were just as ubiquitous.

These days, however, not everybody uses or even needs Microsoft products anymore. Many people — including insurance company employees — now use tablets and smartphones running Apple iOS and Android to do their work throughout the day. Microsoft has a tablet, too, but it's fighting to carve out a slice of an already diverse market. The machines that Microsoft dominated for so long — PCs and laptops — continue to be usurped by tablet computing. The world is quickly hurdling into the cloud and, again, Microsoft is but one player (although a big one) in a busy market.

The most important thing, of course, is serving the needs of the business user — vendor is secondary. But it's worth taking stock of the changes Microsoft helped bring to insurance companies over the years. Namely, decision-makers were able to break free of absolute dependence on IT for information and reporting. PC-based tools, especially spreadsheets, were the first generation of self-service business intelligence.

Back in the day, many insurers' back-end systems ran, and continue to run, on Unix systems — operating systems that packed a lot of power and security, but only a programmer could love. Microsoft brought out a multiuser version of Windows that cut into the hegemony of Unix and other high-end systems with a commodity-priced, easily deployable edition for enterprises. Microsoft’s enterprise-grade database, SQL Server, proved just as capable as the Oracles and DB2s of the world at a much lower price point. Microsoft systems became the core of many insurance operations.

Microsoft was one of the original disruptors. Now, there is a new class of disruptive technologies coming on the market, and competition is good. 

Joe McKendrick is an author, consultant, blogger and frequent INN contributor specializing in information technology.

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