Which Way Gil?
Wednesday, March 13, 1996 by Dave Winer.
I almost didn't write this piece. My keyboard is so sticky! Maybe it's the humidity? All I know is that my Backspace key seems to have a mind of its own. When does it stop deleting? Hmmm. It's kind of random.
Yesterday: great theater, stunningly great theater, at the Microsoft developer conference in San Francisco. Walk into the main hall at Moscone. It's dark. People everywhere. The tables fill the main hall! A vast sea of attendees.
I've been here before, it's a grand hall for trade shows. MacWorld Expo. Seybold. Huge display screens draped from the ceiling, as commercial banners are draped during a tradeshow. But today it's dark. An Alsop-like conference, for the masses. Microsoft on stage. Microsoft on the screens.
I sit in the very back, so far away from the stage that the audio and video are out of synch. The speaker's gestures precede the sounds, making their motions seem exaggerated. The more emotive the speaker, the funnier it is!
Steve Jobs was a disappointment. He starts really well, I'm sitting on the edge of my chair, hoping for some of his great confidence to shine. I miss the young Steve Jobs, even though he used to irritate me endlessly. Instead we have Steve sucking up, a Jobs every mother could love. He shows us something that he says is revolutionary, but it's just CGI scripts connecting the web to a database. Maybe the people in the audience were impressed, but I don't think so. Everyone who browses the web understands that some pages are static and some aren't.
I'm leafing thru the New York Times while Paul Maritz is on the screen. On the front page of the business section, a deal between America OnLine and Netscape. I breathe a sigh of relief. AOL is still on Microsoft's case. Thanks Steve for tweaking them.
Towards the end of Maritz's presentation, a slide announces the deals of the day. Citrix, run by my friend Ed Iacobucci, is on the list. I'm glad for Ed, he's a sweet guy, and I like it when good guys get a chance. Progressive Networks, the makers of RealAudio, run by ex-Microsoftian Rob Glaser are on the slide. Of course! The deal with Sun is signed, Microsoft is now an official Java licensee. Cooool.
All of this is non-controversial; exciting to the people involved for sure, but no breakthrus, no new ideas.
Then the great theater started.
AOL and Microsoft.
Sitting in a tree.
"A far-reaching strategic partnership."
The earth shakes.
Just a little.
Here's what the AOL deal is about. Microsoft Internet Explorer becomes the offical web browser for AOL users, they distribute it on their disks, presumably AOL develops content that takes advantage of features in Microsoft's browser, but that wasn't clear from the announcement.
AOL stops developing their own web browser. The web community sighs in relief. There were problems supporting AOL's browser. Some people will be glad it's over.
Microsoft puts a pointer to AOL's home page in a folder somewhere on the shipping Windows disks. This is the victory that AOL sought last summer when their ire was raised by the bundling of Microsoft Network with Microsoft Windows.
Microsoft announces a new architecture for web browser plugins called ActiveX. It's a capsule for containers. It can hold Blackbird stuff, Java stuff, and OLE stuff. I'm sure Microsoft would welcome OpenDoc stuff.
It's puzzling that Macromedia has taken responsibility for development of the Mac version of ActiveX. I wonder why Microsoft isn't doing this? In a more rational world Apple would be supporting it too.
Microsoft showed us their whole Internet product line. Lots of unfinished business. Their HTML looks pretty funny -- lots of Visual Basic commands! I wonder if I'll ever write web pages that contain VB stuff.
No doubt some people will wait for the new pieces to be delivered, especially Microsoft corporate users who are confused by the web. But for the rest of us, it's still business as usual. If Microsoft starts showing up more in server logs, I'll do stuff with their stuff.
Until that happens, Netscape remains the browser I judge my pages in. I'm keeping Microsoft on my desktop, so I can view other people's Microsoft-enabled pages easily.
I'm right where I want to be, saddled between two competent companies trying to get my content to flow their way.
It's a two-party system.
That's the right way to do it.
It's impossible for one person to concentrate on all the new ways to do gadgets and animations and worlds for web pages. Shockwave and VRML have the largest share of mind. I may crib content from other people, but I don't plan to learn how to develop for these platforms.
Other innovations like frames are too techy, I don't use them. But I am using tables effectively now.
The rate at which designers can incorporate new technology is far less than the rate that the software industry can propose new standards. It's an uphill battle to gain consensus around any of the new proposals. Please pay attention to this. The web world is becoming much like the PC software industry a few years ago. In the end, most of the new proposed standards are irrelevent, and will fall by the wayside.
My belief: it isn't really about technology, it's about dissemination of the web into the hands of the millions of people who are going to do websites over the next few years.
I wish for a Volkswagen of web browsers, something smaller than Netscape 2.0, that just supports basic browsing stuff. A well-crafted user interface. Less than a megabyte of memory. Runs realllly fast!
Then, with that as a target platform, we could craft really easy content tools. An outliner and a text editor and a database, and you're done. Easy accessible webmastering. Not the bewildering space of choices we're seeing now.
The vast majority of web pages will continue to use <blockquote> and <b>, add a few gifs, and leave it at that.
The web is still a text medium. Don't miss that.
Even though I am bewildered by all the choices, I probably will get active in Java, or work closely with people who do Java. Of all the proposals for adding code to web pages, Java comes from the easiest vendor to support. Sun provokes little fear in my world. I feel that if pressed to do the right thing, Sun probably will. I see Java as an excellent insurance policy against Microsoft dominance of this area.
Developers really do think this way. We all make strategic investments; even those of us who work outside of corporations.
Unlike the American political system, it's not one-man one-vote. Any product has the potential of being a killer app. You always hope for that! Killer apps drive markets, so one woman or man potentially has a lot of power. As long as you have hope it's a lot more than one-man one-vote.
So sometimes I make choices for purely economic reasons, and sometimes I go the other way just because it reflects my interests.
I like what I'm doing. Java is on my path. Done deal.
I fully get how crucial to the future of the Macintosh Netscape was and probably still is. If they hadn't shipped a Mac version of Netscape, we'd all be using Windows now, me included.
Miss the web? No way! On the other hand I'd prefer to go sailing for a year before converting all my software to Windows. Some things just aren't worth doing. Life is short. Do I want to start over? Hmmm. Making pottery sounds like more fun.
But thanks to Netscape, the Mac is still interesting!
Integration of the operating system and web browsers is now on the front line. Pay close attention to the integration of the Microsoft browser with the local operating system. You can browse the file system using the web browser. Nice web-like graphics. An outliner that expands and collapses. It's a very well done, and it's a very important approach.
Netscape is going to have to do this, but Microsoft won't clear a path for them. Apple isn't effective as-is. Microsoft isn't likely to offer the Mac platform more than parity with Windows. A close relationship between the browser and the Mac OS is essential.
Someone has to assure the Mac community that the new integration features will appear on the Mac, in a way that makes sense to Mac developers and users. If Apple won't do this, who will?
The wakeup calls keep coming. We were lucky last time. Netscape put their bet on the Mac, and delivered. With Microsoft's presence rising in this area, we may not be so lucky next time. Mac is a minor stage for Microsoft theater. If Netscape diminishes in importance, the power of the Mac platform will probably diminish along with it.
Gil Amelio asks for 100 days of grace.
Sorry, the world won't wait.
Even Steve Jobs let go.
It's time for Apple to do it too.
Amelio has to choose between Microsoft and Netscape.
As Paul Simon sings, everybody loves the sound of a Train in the Distance.
But the train is right here, right now.
Which way Gil?
PS: Remember the debate about the $500 Internet terminal? Citrix and TransPhone have already demo'd one, even though this wasn't clear at the Demo 96 conference, which I attended. See http://www.citrix.com/transpho.htm for background.