The discussion is already nearly five years old, and yet the vacancy in the public conscience persists as if something big had collapsed just last week. Microsoft is no longer the dominating, polarizing force that it was in the previous decade. The mindset of the company that once preached to its employees, "Every line of code that is written to our standards is a small victory; every line of code that is written to any other standard, is a small defeat," has exited out the back door and sneaked past the gaze of European regulators.

And boy, do we ever miss it. From the moment Ycombinator co-founder Paul Graham famously proclaimed "Microsoft is Dead," our casting couches have been warmed by the seats of would-be substitutes. Like it or not, Microsoft fulfilled a latent psychological need in many folks' minds: the need for a strongly polarizing force that made it easier to decide what to like and what to hate.

Humble pie

The very fact that this may be a valid question suggests, as my colleague Joe Brockmeier recently remarked in a discussion on the topic, that Microsoft is no longer Microsoft. The need for "a Microsoft" is about the desire for something to base our arguments for the future of computing against. "Openness" was so much easier to define when one could simply point to Microsoft and say, "Not that."

Like Donald Trump, Microsoft has lost much of its swagger, tending at times to look like an anachronism even in front of its own shareholders. In a number of respects, the company has become what so many wanted it to become all along: humbler, more respectful, less fierce, and at least relatively smaller. But while some have gone so far as to suggest that Microsoft now finds itself playing catch-up with its competitors in terms of innovation, others ask, hasn't Microsoft always let the others innovate first? In certain key respects, it's the same company.

The continued relevance of Windows, in a world where the most exciting and innovative new methodologies don't have scroll bars or taskbars or even mouse pointers, is a fair topic for consideration. I say this as a Windows user since the first beta. Years ago, the reason for Windows' existence was because it was a vital necessity. When Microsoft altered Windows to any significant degree, the alteration was the direction of future development because Microsoft said so. The company took us in bold new directions with OLE, the .NET Framework, and peer-to-peer workgroups. And it led us in sometimes wild, inconsistent, and diverging directions with ideas such as ActiveX, the semi-defined ribbon UI for Office, and most recently the apparent dead end called Silverlight.

But perhaps you've noticed, Microsoft doesn't set the direction that all technology is expected to follow, no matter how many times its CEO reads the keynote at CES.

Central Casting

What has changed significantly more than Microsoft Corp. itself is how the public perceives personal technology as an industry, and its colorful cast of players. Perhaps not everyone, but certainly a vocal plurality have been scrambling to fill the void left by the absence of de facto dominance. Computerworld tried Apple out for the role in September 2007. As Mike Elgan wrote, although Apple was becoming a monopolist, although it bullies both its competitors and its partners, and although it was shamelessly copying innovations from other firms, Apple in his words deserved that role, just as he said Microsoft deserved it in a previous era.

Last year, Salon's Andrew Leonard asked exactly the same question, as if Elgan's high praise for Apple's coup d'etat wasn't striking enough. Leonard began by defining Microsoft as "a monopolizing bully intent on stomping all its competitors into quivering jelly." His conclusion made sense: "It is long past time for us to dispense with binary notions of closed versus open, and instead think of the technology ecosystem as populated by multiple hybrid beasties. In this new landscape, some succeed with tighter, proprietary models -- Apple -- while others flourish through a comparatively greater embrace of openness -- Google. But everyone competes on a basically level playing field -- the Internet and the ever-lower cost of computing processing power make certain of that."

Since that time, the very greyscale that Leonard advocated has opened up Apple's iOS to an injection of new HTML5-oriented delivery platforms (whether Apple likes them or not), and has brought us a world where developers wait in befuddled bewilderment over how Google, in its majesty, will choose to implement multiple concurrent releases of Android for phones and tablets. That Google doesn't wear the white hat any more was indicated by Robert X. Cringeley's tryout for Google as Microsoft in February 2010, my friend Tristan Louis' tryout of Google as Microsoft just a few months ago, and former analyst on Microsoft subjects Matt Rosoff passing the Borg baton to Google's Larry Page on Wednesday.

Google has become Microsoft, both Louis and Rosoff assert, because (among other reasons) Google + is designed to attack Facebook the way Microsoft's Bing was designed to attack Google. This could be because Facebook has become, in Google's mind, Google. Or maybe Facebook has become Microsoft - I've lost track.

Open up

Naturally, other companies have been tried out in the Microsoft-bully guise, Oracle being one example of late since its acquisition of Sun, and with certain strategic parallels, VMware. In a way, the fact itself that the jury remains out on this subject, is an indicator of something Elgan pointed out but was perhaps too afraid to include in his headline, for fear it wouldn't score as many hits on Google News: For so long, Microsoft's critics (myself among them) called for a leveling of the market, an opening of the way to newer, more aggressive alternatives to the way business was being done.

And here it is. We're living in precisely the world we asked for, which prompts me to wonder why so many of us continue searching for the proper face to Photoshop into the Borg costume. Certainly, Google and Apple and Facebook are making the most of the dominance cards they've earned in their respective markets. I expect Oracle and VMware and (how about this!) Salesforce to do the same in 2012 for the markets they address. And from time to time, each of these companies may try to play an unfair advantage.

If the market is as open as we portray it to be, then unfair advantage cannot exist. Attempts by anyone to play dirty will be rectified, either in the courts, the marketplace, or as some have suggested to me, the comments section. So we need to look to ourselves, as long as we're being so open and honest and transparent, and ask why it is we think we need a negative example to show us in which direction the positive one can be found. For whose benefit must all the hats be black or white?

If any one company represents the long, humiliating, intrinsically American struggle back to par with the rest of the world, it's Microsoft. This is the level playing field we said we wanted. For America or any country, and for Microsoft or any company, to succeed in this flatter world, we need to restrain ourselves from recreating the Cold War.