Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Joel on Software - How Microsoft Lost the API War

A very long but amusing rant by Joel Spolsky about the workability of Microsoft's penchant for continuous revolution in the age of web applications. He also makes a vital point that I've made several times myself:

So the Web user interface is about 80% there, and even without new web browsers we can probably get 95% there. This is Good Enough for most people and it's certainly good enough for developers, who have voted to develop almost every significant new application as a web application.

Which means, suddenly, Microsoft's API doesn't matter so much. Web applications don't require Windows.

It's not that Microsoft didn't notice this was happening. Of course they did, and when the implications became clear, they slammed on the brakes. Promising new technologies like HTAs and DHTML were stopped in their tracks. The Internet Explorer team seems to have disappeared; they have been completely missing in action for several years. There's no way Microsoft is going to allow DHTML to get any better than it already is: it's just too dangerous to their core business, the rich client. The big meme at Microsoft these days is: "Microsoft is betting the company on the rich client." You'll see that somewhere in every slide presentation about Longhorn. Joe Beda, from the Avalon team, says that "Avalon, and Longhorn in general, is Microsoft's stake in the ground, saying that we believe power on your desktop, locally sitting there doing cool stuff, is here to stay. We're investing on the desktop, we think it's a good place to be, and we hope we're going to start a wave of excitement..."

The trouble is: it's too late.
Microsoft isn't opposed to standards compliance simply because it reduces lock-in: after all, Mozilla and Safari both bend over backwards to accomodate Internet Explorer's idiosyncracies, and they are largely successful in doing so. The real reason behind Microsoft's inaction is that a web based on an easily extensible framework like XHTML 1.1 is a web in which semantically rich content can be made available to all regardless of what clients they're using. SVG would make possible fast and entirely web-based alternatives to heavyweights like Adobe Illustrator, as well as desktop-like richness in user interfaces; MathML would be the beginning of the end for old desktop standbys like Maple and Mathematica; all sorts of new extensions to XHTML could be invented to provide through the web browser the very sorts of functionality that have traditionally made Windows so compelling a platform. Bill Gates is no fool, so I'm sure he's realized all of this, and it'll be a cold day in hell before Microsoft makes any changes to Internet Explorer that bring this dangerous vision any closer to reality.

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