Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Microsoft Has Already Killed Itself

Here's what's so awesome about the browser wars.

Microsoft entered the browser market with the explicit goal of driving Netscape out of business. They realized that if what Netscape made was good enough, people could host their applications over the network, instead of running them on the desktop, and it would matter much, much less to have a virtual monopoly on operating systems. What good is owning the desktop if every application sits on the network?

So of course the browser wars happened. And I have long ago lost the link, but I saw it, it was an actual quote from Microsoft management, their goal was to destroy the market, so nobody could ever make money selling a browser. (Such a business goal, by the way, is explicitly prohibited by antitrust law, but, you know, like Microsoft cares.)

Of course Microsoft won the browser wars, and Netscape no longer really exists. It's still persisting as this pathetic kind of brand zombie, and it's not the only one, but, you know, in reality, it's gone.

We all know how Microsoft did it. The relentless arms race of features. Netscape took the bait every time, giving us browsers that were just as bloated, that had just as many idiotic features we didn't need. So it stopped being about changing the world, and instead it became about who could ship bloatware faster. Microsoft tricked Netscape into playing their game, and guess who wins when you do that.

When the dust settled, Microsoft was living, and Netscape was dead. That sucked, but on the other hand, we had all kinds of cool features in our browsers. So many features, in fact, that it was possible to build all kinds of kickass web apps, including one that the project manager for Microsoft Project said puts Project to shame.

So hopefully the irony here is obvious.

It's straight out of a B movie about time travel.

Microsoft saw the future coming, thought, "no way! fuck that!" and then went ahead and in their efforts to prevent it from ever happening created the very future they feared.

This means, by Microsoft's own logic, that Microsoft is going to be what killed Microsoft.

If only we could believe it was hirikiri. If only! Then we could give them some credit. We could say, "they looked in the mirror, they saw a monster, and they did the right thing." But no. It wasn't intentional.

They were just that stupid.

I know they have some of the best engineers in the world. Allegedly. I know even God wishes he had as much money as Bill Gates. (Allegedly.) But let's face it, when you make stuff as heinously ugly as Word, when your business practices are unabashedly evil and even openly criminal, it is only a matter of time until everybody with self-respect is gone, and the only people left who will code for you are mercenaries. And the thing about mercenaries is, if you tell them to shoot your own foot, they will do it. They don't care. It's the money you give them that aims the gun. It's not common sense, it's not good taste, and it's not self-respect. If you say "aim for the foot," they'll say, "your foot?" And if you say "yes," they'll say "left or right?" And if you say, "both," well, let's face it, that pretty much explains every product Microsoft has made for a very long time now. It certainly explains that fucking paperclip.

The real word, though, isn't stupid. It's foolish. Or maybe even arrogant. They saw the future coming and they realized they would have to work much harder and compete in a real marketplace if that future happened. So instead of taking on that responsibility, they tried to stop the future from happening. What could be more arrogant? They tricked IBM into handing over a virtual monopoly, held onto it with criminal ruthlessness, and then when they saw a future coming that would make they irrelevant, they figured they were badass enough to somehow stop the flow of time.

I think we can call that arrogance.

However, if, by our logic, Microsoft is kind of stupid, and if they've created the future they feared, then shouldn't we expect them to go under? Aren't they going to vanish in a puff of righteous come-uppance? Unfortunately, no. Microsoft's days as anything other than a dumb-ass bully with a huge wallet are very, very over, and have been for a very long time. But a dumb-ass bully with a huge wallet is still a dangerous opponent, and Microsoft has a war chest that'll keep it in the black for a long time to come.

Still, their dominance has ended.

Until very recently, the number one reason consumers gave for buying their first computer was spreadsheets. Today, it's e-mail. That's an application hosted on the network, where the desktop doesn't matter. If you want to choose a better operating system, go for it. It makes no difference. Windows is irrelevant there, and without Windows, Microsoft has nothing. That means all they can do is ride on legacy systems until even the latest of the late adopters has come to their senses. (Hey, it works for COBOL programmers.) But if that's their plan, it means the evil genius who took over the world has turned into a toothless bottom-feeder. No wonder Bill Gates retired.

It could just be a matter of time. It could just be a matter of a paradigm shift, too, but it was a paradigm shift they saw coming, fought to prevent, and in so doing, helped to create. That's what's so funny about the whole thing. It's like those old AT&T ads. Have you ever seen a world without Microsoft? You will. And the company that's going to bring it to you? Microsoft.

There's a great podcast of a Clay Shirky presentation where he explains how some of the online businesses which, in the late 90s, destroyed old ways of doing things, these businesses often mistakenly saw themselves, at the time, as continuing the traditions they were actually burying. His big example is sites like travelocity.com. These sites often saw themselves as online travel agents, instead of the end of the line for travel agencies, which is what they actually were. Microsoft's "victory" in the browser wars is pretty much the same thing. They thought they were continuining their tradition of "embrace and extend" domination, but in reality, they were just building a guarantee of their own future irrelevance.


  1. Brilliant. I for one, hope you're right.

  2. Actually, Microsoft proved its brilliance and ruthlessness by devoting its ponderous resources to making sure that the networked-application space was controlled by Microsoft. Microsoft anticipated Netscape as a threat, and understood why: their goal was to own the space that Netscape threatened to undermine them with.

    They have been largely successful. Until Netscape's reincarnation as Firefox, the operant "Web standard" was not determined by the W3C, but was rather simply whatever would work in Internet Explorer.

    And I still am expected to send resumes in Word format.

  3. Great post. I mostly agree. However it makes me a little nervous that IE is still the overwealmingly dominant browser. And for the majority of people, "Windows PC" is still a synonym for "computer". So for most people, who don't have the initiative or imagination to seek out a better browser, to get to this Web space that MS supposedly "lost control of" they have to go through several Microsoft products. MS still controls the gateway to the Web and they may still have some tricks up their sleeve. But then along comes your "mercenaries" analysis, which is very interesting.


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