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September 03, 2008

Chrome - Getting Microsoft’s Goat

Historically there has been nothing which gets Microsoft's attention as fast as a platform for applications which threatens Windows dominance. Google's Chrome is obviously such a platform; Google can afford to challenge Microsoft; it's healthy for innovation that it does. Can Microsoft still rise to the challenge?

Way back when I was at Microsoft – 1991 to 1994, Lotus Notes was the threat du jour. Developers WERE developing Notes apps instead of Windows apps; analysts and Lotus CEO Jim Manzi were predicting that Windows would fade in importance and that Microsoft apps like Word and Excel would than wither as well. Bill Gates respected Manzi as a tactician and really respected Notes creator Ray Ozzie (now chief software architect at Microsoft) as a technician. We were at war.

Since I was responsible for the development of what was to become Microsoft Exchange, I was in charge of that war for a while although I was never as aggressive against Notes as Bill would have liked. I was an email guy; I thought the real battle was over email (and that email was the platform of the future – wrong). I knew Lotus cc:Mail had more users than either Notes or Microsoft Mail (the then current DOS-based version). I knew mail was on or about to be on every desktop. I believed that Notes, powerful as it was for collaboration, was too complex for most people to want to use as an email client. But, every time Bill insisted that we add more Notes-killing functionality to Exchange, the further behind schedule we got (this is partly excuse; we were behind schedule anyway). The further behind Exchange got, the more seats cc:Mail and, to a lesser extent, Notes added.

In the end, we (Microsoft) won the email battle, partly because MAPI (Messaging APIs) made Exchange and Outlook better platforms than cc:Mail for ISVs and 3d party vendors and partly because Lotus didn't upgrade cc:Mail on a timely basis since they, too, were focused on Notes so we really had a better email system. Our collaboration battle faded into irrelevance as the link-based Web proved more useful than the mainly hierarchical data storage models used by both Lotus and Microsoft.

The next serious platform challenge to Microsoft was a browser: Netscape Navigator. The applications you could write in a browser back then were very limited; but that didn't stop Marc Andreessen, the chief inventor of the Web browser, from proclaiming (perhaps unwisely) that the browser was a platform which would challenge Microsoft. Bill Gates apparently believed him. Netscape wasn't really strong enough to stand up to Microsoft despite a soaring stock price; its middle managers had prematurely become as arrogant as Microsoft middle managers. Microsoft courted ISPs (I was running AT&T WorldNet then so was courted) and won distribution for Explorer at least equal to that for Navigator. And, of course, Microsoft bundled Explorer with Windows. Eventually Netscape was acquired by AOL, which didn't do much with it, and that threat was gone.

Chrome could be the most serious threat yet. Browsers have come a long way since Navigator and the early Explorer. JavaScript and a host of server-based tools make it much easier to write applications in a browser – and gain at least partial platform and operating system independence. Amazon, and to a lesser extent Google, have made it extremely practical to deploy Web apps professionally at very low cost. Most importantly, we're online with access to web servers more and more of the time – even when we're moving.

Google has googles of cash; it can't be starved out by Microsoft. It has "distribution" as the search engine of choice; it dominates search and keyword advertising the way Microsoft dominates desktop software. THIS is a battle of the titans.

Related posts:

How MAPI Beat VIM (an historical footnote)

The Flattening of Almost Everything #2 – Information Retrieval


Microsoft Memories




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