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How Microsoft Lost the API War

June 19th, 2004 · No Comments

Joel Spolsky writes: “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.”

One of the points made by Joel:

Every developer has a choice to make when they plan a new software application: they can build it for the web or they can build a “rich client” application that runs on PCs. The basic pros and cons are simple: Web applications are easier to deploy, while rich clients offer faster response time enabling much more interesting user interfaces.

Web Applications are easier to deploy because there’s no installation involved. Installing a web application means typing a URL in the address bar. Today I installed Google’s new email application by typing Alt+D, gmail, Ctrl+Enter. There are far fewer compatibility problems and problems coexisting with other software. Every user of your product is using the same version so you never have to support a mix of old versions. You can use any programming environment you want because you only have to get it up and running on your own server. Your application is automatically available at virtually every reasonable computer on the planet. Your customers’ data, too, is automatically available at virtually every reasonable computer on the planet.

But there’s a price to pay in the smoothness of the user interface. Here are a few examples of things you can’t really do well in a web application:

1. Create a fast drawing program
2. Build a real-time spell checker with wavy red underlines
3. Warn users that they are going to lose their work if they hit the close box of the browser
4. Update a small part of the display based on a change that the user makes without a full roundtrip to the server
5. Create a fast keyboard-driven interface that doesn’t require the mouse
6. Let people continue working when they are not connected to the Internet

These are not all big issues. Some of them will be solved very soon by witty Javascript developers. Two new web applications, Gmail and Oddpost, both email apps, do a really decent job of working around or completely solving some of these issues. And users don’t seem to care about the little UI glitches and slowness of web interfaces. Almost all the normal people I know are perfectly happy with web-based email, for some reason, no matter how much I try to convince them that the rich client is, uh, richer.

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.

The new API is HTML, and the new winners in the application development marketplace will be the people who can make HTML sing.

Slashdot has a discussion.

Tags: Microsoft

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