My Microsoft Blind-SpotΒΆ

date:2006-05-04 14:08:23
category:Economics of Software

Hobbit says [link ] “Everything in the windows world does not directly work with the “rapidly-evolving” windows api’s (for example, c# devs rarely concern themselves with api calls.) If there is such a lack of clarity in these API’s causing a “barrier to innovation,” why is windows still the easiest and most popular platform to develop on?

“I would argue that development tools, languages and technologies are one of the few areas that MS actually excels, and that love it or not, it’s played a big role in their market dominance.”

First, there’s a distinction being emphasized here, between application programming (in C#, apart from low-level API’s) and platform programming (where the low-level API’s matter more). This is an important distinction and gets at the heart of my complaint.

Tangentially, there’s a the question of “easy” and “popular”, which are not what I’m complaining about. Many people are willing to pay top dollar for the “easy” part of Windows. Other people consider Windows to be essential to success because it’s popular. These are different reasons; sometimes people will buy into both, sometimes only one or the other.

One of my customers is big on the “easy” and cares very little for the “popular”, as an example. They feel that the Windows Visual Studio has so many easy-of-use factors that it is worth every penny. And they feel that they can – at any time – cut the cord and switch to Mono [link ].

Finally, I reject the proposition that “tools, languages and technologies [have] played a big role in their market dominance.” I think that marketplace dominance is a herd-mentality feedback loop. Other people are using it, so I’ll use it, too. Popularity isn’t about superior technology, but about good-enough technology. Popularity isn’t about innovation, but about stability. Indeed, some claim that it’s all about predictability [link ].

The API Bottleneck.

My problem may be that I see the really innovative stuff in the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, Python/PHP/Perl) or MARS (MySQL, Apache, Rails, Solaris) worlds first. If it is viable, it moves into Windows. One example is the sophisticated FFMPEG [link ] application suite, which doesn’t seem to be a Windows innovation.

This is not to say that the open source world owns innovation. Good stuff arises first in Windows, also, but it is generally not so envelope-pushing. In Windows, you can create a nice application, but you’d be hard pressed to create a new kind of application.

This could be my bias in watching LAMP-technology arena more closely than the Windows arena. Or, it could be that the open source world is free from constraints imposed by the MS technology stack. By constraints, I mean the “what does this do?” mystery. There’s a limit to these efforts at “lower-level” innovation when you can’t be sure what the API rally does.

At the end-user application-level, if the API’s aren’t visible in C# using .NET, then the effect is indirect. What happens is that upper-tier software (like applications in C#) are only hampered slightly by the pace of innovation in C#; C#, on the other hand, is hampered by the mysterious API’s.

I have to grant that C# does isolate application developers from the opacity of the underlying OS. However, in the long run, I think this leads to complex and fragile architectures that will get trumped by simpler and more effective solutions.

Standards.

As a tangent, I notice that library definitions in Python are filled with “doesn’t work the same in Windows.” To me, this implies that there’s a right way, a wrong way, and a Windows way. While it may be popular and easy-to-use, it seems to have problems.

If the documentation said “doesn’t work the same in Linux”, then I’d have to agree that Windows is the standard for correctness. But given that there’s a POSIX standard [link ] and no Windows standard, I’m left to think that the presence of a standard for the API’s is one of the reasons for innovation in this arena.

On the other hand, it could be simply that I watch the LAMP community more closely than the Windows community.

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