The Ancient Geeks
Saturday, November 6, 1999 by Dave Winer.
And happy November..
We're whistling while we work on the new release of Frontier, version 6.1, the Manila release. Sorry to be so long in writing, that's the way it goes when I'm in development mode.
Last night there was a Finding of Fact in the anti-trust trial against Microsoft. The decision, which I have read, is totally one-sided, against Microsoft.
This was not a surprise, while the trial was going on, it was pretty clear that the judge, Mr. Jackson, was going this way. My comments follow.
Don't cry for Netscape
We're judging this with hindsight, but even while the events were transpiring, it was evident that Netscape didn't have a vision for itself.
Further, the company never developed its natural base of developer support, among web designers, scripters and ISPs, choosing instead to woo developers with a C-like platform, Java. This was their major strategic blunder, it was massive. None of these groups wanted to align behind Microsoft, but the energy was behind HTML, not Java, which was incomplete, slow, buggy and not truly cross-platform (which was its promise).
Viewed another way, their natural constituency was the remnants of the Mac user and developer base, newly energized by the opportunities of the web. Had Netscape stood in the center of this group and said "This is where we're going" we all would have gone with them. But they never had anything to say to us.
Netscape didn't invent the web, as many in Washington appear to believe. Netscape was as opportunistic as Microsoft, and the principals of Netscape, and their investors, were amply rewarded for the risks they took. Read Tim Berners-Lee's account of the history of the web, and you'll see that from his point of view, as the inventor of the web, Netscape played a minor role in its evolution. Berners-Lee's account is consistent with everything I know about Netscape.
Microsoft as training wheels
Now switch over and look at this moment of history, and how Microsoft fits in.
We need Microsoft's operating system less and less every year. That will continue, it's inexorable, it's a product of the environment, it's happened before, and it will continue to happen. I like The Jackson Finding if it hastens the process, but the process is happening anyway.
The process can only be seen, IMHO, when you have studied a few transitions in the software world. We need companies like Microsoft for a while, when we're commercializing a new layer of technology (Microsoft's layer was the graphic user interface), but then another generation comes along, and they incorporate what the previous generation invented, as part of their world view, and the dominating company is marginalized, cast aside, as a child learning to ride a bike throws away the training wheels on his or her bicycle. Eventually you don't need them, they only hold you back.
That doesn't mean that the dominating company goes away, far from it, but their role changes from being the scrappy innovator to the steady source of support and infrastructure. IBM made the transition, after spending a decade in court fighting a similar anti-trust case, after they lost dominance of the PC market. You can see Microsoft anticipating this transition in the investments they're making in network bandwidth.
A booming networking industry is building itself around Microsoft, to some extent, but also around Unix and the Macintosh, Java, PalmOS, Sony Playstation, etc. Even Microsoft has acknowledged this.
The widely-overlooked SOAP specification, their blueprint for networking in the future, is markedly *not* Microsoft-centered. Any would-be competitor to Windows now has a way to feed off the installed base of Windows developers.
At a strategic level, this is very smart of Microsoft. Being hard and fragile and insistent would be a formula for complete marginalization, as IBM was marginalized in the late 80s. SOAP is evidence of some flexibility, which is hard to accomplish in a company of 30,000 employees. It's hard to get a community that large to recognize that there's a world outside its boundaries. This is probably due to the fact that Gates is a student of history and the consumate game player. I called it right, I think, in 1994, when I said his game was to not be the next Ken Olson, the founder of DEC. (When I wrote this paragraph, my main Windows NT server blue-screened for the first time ever! As I was typing Ken Olson's name. Wow. Talk about synchronicity!)
Why do anything?
The fight with Microsoft is about whether or not we will all be Windows Developers. That fight is now over, completely. Microsoft had dominance in this dimension for at most three years. The Internet wiped the slate completely clean in 1993. Microsoft struggled mightily for five years, helping push Netscape to the mat, but they were already down, from the moment they popped into existence, because they didn't have any ideas or vision or ability to execute. I don't know which of these caused Netscape to go poof, but the net-effect is that Netscape had nothing more to contribute than a browser, they did that, their investors made huge returns, so why do anything at all here?
Show me the money
Further, Microsoft is under another kind of pressure. I always believed that if Microsoft stock should ever take a downward turn that it would spiral down quickly because the value of stock options is what glues a lot of the key people to Microsoft.
I didn't anticipate that Microsoft stock value could spiral *up* and still fall under this kind of pressure. The rise in Internet IPOs is siphoning off many of the best people at Microsoft. Having a huge appreciating stock is not that unique anymore. Internet IPOs happen all the time, offering much higher rates of return than Microsoft.
This is why you see Microsoft doing more and more investing in Internet startups and infrastructure. Imagine Microsoft in three years as two companies, one an investment banker, and the other a consulting and services company. It's time to rethink what Microsoft is, because it's changing, with or without interference from the courts.
The Ancient Geeks
I know some people read DaveNets by skimming down the left edge until they find the title of the piece and start reading there. For the last few months I've been resisiting this practice, but I decided this time, what the heck, I'll indulge people's desire to read in any order they like.
Dear reader, I left the r out of Greeks. It was not a typo. My generation is getting on in years. Pretty soon we'll be looking back on the 1900s the same way our ancestors looked back on the 1800s. Someday someone is going to ask you what the 1900s were like. I wonder if we're prepared for the new level of mid-life crises that this will bring about. Hot flashes galore. All of a sudden we don't have to worry about becoming our fathers (the crisis of turning 40) now we have to worry about becoming our forefathers!
Oh what opportunities to loop. But instead of resisting the future, let's reserve a space for it on our laps. Let's read the future our stories, but give it the space to be whatever it's meant to be. None of us, Bill Gates included, is so powerful as to determine destiny. We're all just humans, part of a tidal wave of human growth, doing the best we can.
PS: IMHO stands for In My Humble Opinion.