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Monday, October 11, 2004

Microsoft loses the API war

(Via Senthil) Joel Sposky writes about How Microsoft Lost The API War. Here's a theory you hear a lot these days: "Microsoft is finished. As soon as Linux makes some inroads on the desktop and web applications replace desktop applications, the mighty empire will topple." We covered this topic recently. Although there is some truth to the fact that Linux is a huge threat to Microsoft, predictions of Microsft's demise are premature. Microsoft has an incredible amount of cash money in the bank and is still incredibly profitable. It has a long way to fall. It could do everything wrong for a decade before it started to be in remote danger. In the early 90s everyone thought IBM was completely over: mainframes were history! Back then, Robert X. Cringely predicted that the era of the mainframe would end on January 1, 2000 when all the applications written in COBOL would seize up, and rather than fix those applications, for which, allegedly, the source code had long since been lost, everybody would rewrite those applications for client-server platforms.
Microsoft's crown strategic jewel, the Windows API, is lost. The cornerstone of Microsoft's monopoly power and incredibly profitable Windows and Office franchises, which account for virtually all of Microsoft's income and covers up a huge array of unprofitable or marginally profitable product lines, the Windows API is no longer of much interest to developers. The goose that lays the golden eggs is not quite dead, but it does have a terminal disease, one that nobody noticed yet.

Microsoft grew up during the 1980s and 1990s, when the growth in personal computers was so dramatic that every year there were more new computers sold than the entire installed base. That meant that if you made a product that only worked on new computers, within a year or two it could take over the world even if nobody switched to your product. That was one of the reasons Word and Excel displaced WordPerfect and Lotus so thoroughly: Microsoft just waited for the next big wave of hardware upgrades and sold Windows, Word and Excel to corporations buying their next round of desktop computers (in some cases their first round). So in many ways Microsoft never needed to learn how to get an installed base to switch from product N to product N+1. When people get new computers, they're happy to get all the latest Microsoft stuff on the new computer, but they're far less likely to upgrade. This didn't matter when the PC industry was growing like wildfire, but now that the world is saturated with PCs most of which are Just Fine, Thank You, Microsoft is suddenly realizing that it takes much longer for the latest thing to get out there. When they tried to "End Of Life" Windows 98, it turned out there were still so many people using it they had to promise to support that old creaking grandma for a few more years.Unfortunately, these Brave New Strategies, things like .NET and Longhorn and Avalon, trying to create a new API to lock people into, can't work very well if everybody is still using their good-enough computers from 1998. Developers, developers, developers, and developers are not buying into Microsoft's multiple-personality-disordered suggestions for how we should develop software. Suddenly, Microsoft's API doesn't matter so much. Web applications don't require Windows. None of this bodes well for Microsoft and the profits it enjoyed thanks to its API power. The new API is HTML, and the new winners in the application development marketplace will be the people who can make HTML sing.None of this bodes well for Microsoft and the profits it enjoyed thanks to its API power. The new API is HTML, and the new winners in the application development marketplace will be the people who can make HTML sing. This is where the real threat to Microsoft lay
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