An Unimportant Collection of Slightly Buggy Device Drivers

When People Danced to the Macarena

The exploding importance of the Internet in the mid-90s broughttremendous change to the technology market. It forced industryleaders and followers to hastily adapt to the new opportunities andchallenges.

It was a do-or-die time, and you had to embrace and adapt, orget extinguished.

To everyone but Microsoft, it seemed.

Despite the hurricane-force winds of change around them, theindustry leading behemoth looked to be stuck in a recursive loop.While upstarts were racing in every direction, envisioning andimplementing new uses for this growingly accessible platform,Microsoft seemed to be busy navel gazing, more worried about how tomaintain the status quo.

Despite the relative success of Windows 95 — the long-overduemigration to mainstream 32-bit computing — Microsoft’s slow-movingheft seemed to make them incredibly vulnerable during this criticaltransition period, making them appear a lumbering giant thatcould be toppled by the smallest adversary.

The young upstart Netscape appeared a likely candidate to shootthe mortal stone: Sales of Netscape’s server and browser productsyielded a revenue growth curve exceeding that of any softwarecompany in history. They were actually running a profitablebusiness, which was a remarkable feat for a technology company at atime.

Their Netscape Navigator browser had fortified a seeminglyinsurmountable positionin the marketplace . The company image was hip, and Mozilla adorned swagwas flying out of their online store.

In that era of seemingly boundless opportunity, inebriated withthe seemingly limitless potential of the company that heco-founded, MarcAndreessen made the infamous comment that the NetscapeNavigator browser, coupled with the Java platform, would reduceWindows to an “unimportantcollection of slightly buggy device drivers.”

By then Gates had penned his famous internal “Internet Memo”,demanding that the company focus on the Internet. The cruise shipMicrosoft was ever so slowly changing course.

While the overwhelming majority of Microsoft’s renewed focusturned out to be largely useless “internet-enabled” bedazzling ofexisting products — the oft-lauded “turn on a dime” fiction aboutMicrosoft’s Internet revolution is grossly overstated — where itreally counted, the browser, Microsoft executed very well.

Microsoft’s browser offering quickly became good enough thatthat average user couldn’t be bothered to download and configure acompetitor’s products on their new PC (Microsoft didn’t have toprovide a better product, or even as good for that matter: It justhad to be good enough to dissuade an average user fromseeking out alternatives. This is a bundling reality used in allindustries).

Add to that the fact that Netscape’s development cycles gotlonger and longer, their innovation dried up, and their product gotbuggier.

Eventually Internet Explorer was the winning product on meritalone.

Soon we had an internet full of “Made for Internet Explorer”buttons. Much of the non-academic web had been Microsoft-ized, andyou couldn’t play unless you went where Microsoft was goingtoday.

The rest is, of course, history: Internet Explorer rocketed tosuccess, almost entirely at the expense of Netscape.

Knowing how things turned out, with the all-knowing clarity ofhindsight, Andreessen’s claims of course look like foolish bravado.Even at the time it sounded like nonsense: Java applets had shownlittle promise, delivering terrible performance, atrociousinterfaces, and an awkward, crippled interaction with their hostenvironment. The browser wasn’t much better, limited mostly torendering personal pages full of blink tags and gaudy colorschemes.

I recall reading that quote from Andreessen back then (I believein a Dvorak article in PC Magazine), puhshaw-ing in disbelief. Icouldn’t believe his audacity, and as a junior Windows-targetingdeveloper at the time, with perhaps a bit of a fear of change(nobody likes when their skills, even at a beginner stage, arebeing obsoleted), I cheered on a Microsoft response.

“Bill Gates is going to CRUSH this guy!” I thought.

And of course Microsoft easily won that battle.

But are they losing the war?

The Pillars of Our Reliance on Windows

Windows as an operating system certainly has a lot going for it:It is feature rich, demonstrates a lot of technical excellence, andcan credibly measure up against any competitor.

Yet for many users over the past decade, there was no choice:Windows was obligatory. It was exactly this hegemony thatAndreessen felt his platform was upsetting.

His prediction was just a decade or so early. And instead ofJava being their tag-team partner, it’s JavaScript/AJAX, Flash, andthe innovation and power of modern console gaming.

“I dual-boot to play games”

I hit a local department store recently to look for someeducational games for my pre-school aged daughter. This locationnever had an extensive PC software selection, but I was stillsurprised to find the entire section had been removed, save for acouple of relics sitting in a discount bin.

The entire area was taken over by game console and handheldsoftware.

Thinking this was an anomaly; I drove across town and checkedtheir competition, and then their competition’s competition, onlyto find the same at each: No PC software at all was for sale.

No games. No typing tutors. No foreign language training. Nophoto management software. No pre-school aged games.

Baffled, I hit the local EB Games location. Over the years I’dpurchased dozens of PC games there, so I was shocked to find no PCsoftware at all (the exception being a couple of ratty late-90s eraboxes in a wire-mesh bin).

Determined, I ventured to the local Future Shop (the Canadianequivalent to Best Buy, and in fact the chain was acquired by BestBuy a few years ago, causing much confusion as it came in concertwith the actual Best Buy chain itself) to find a small PC softwaresection. While it was much smaller than it once was — where oncethere were rows dedicated to just productivity applications, now aminiscule little section caters to the entire gamut of software –at least it was something.

However compelling, my personal anecdote doesn’t really provemuch, but it does correlate with industry metrics that have shownretail PC software sales to end users to be stagnating or infreefall. Businesses keep buying their Office and Windows licenses,of course, and niche groups keep satisfying their business need,but what once was a vibrant retail market for applications andgames has virtually disappeared. Some of this has been supplantedby online purchases, including some new electronic delivery method(which is how I got Half-Life 2 — an impulse purchase is wellcatered to by a simple online purchase with immediatesatisfaction), but much of it has just disappeared.

Consumers just aren’t consuming PC software anymore.

The reasons are obvious.

Deja Vu All Over Again – The Rise of Console Gaming

On the gaming front, the PC has seen incredible competition fromgaming consoles. Not only have those competitors evolved intotechnical heavyweights, the simplification of the entire gaminggenre has equalized the playing field: Where once a mouse and akeyboard were mandatory to play any decent game, most popular gamesnow feature simple interfaces that are equally accommodated on anyplatform, and the complex simulator type games, once the consistentchart toppers, are largely unloved.

You don’t need a mouse to interact with an onscreen flower menu.You don’t need a keyboard to communicate via a headset and in-gameVoice-over-IP.

Consoles aren’t the only reason for PC gaming’s decline –general internet use has taken a lot of time that people would havespent gaming, some of that time being spent being entertained bythe countless Flash-based, cross-platform games available now.

Doomsayers have being declaring the death of PC gaming foryears, as generations of consoles have come and then gone andWindows gaming has remained, but never has it seemed as likely toactually happen. In response, Microsoft is attempting some Windowsgaming branding; perhaps realizing that it was a linchpin of theiroccupation of the home; but their intervention is likely toolate.

So what does any of this have to do with Windows and Netscapeand buggy device drivers?

One of the primary reasons many users felt tied to the Windowsplatform was gaming: If you wanted to play any of the prominentgames at the time, that collection of slightly buggy device driverswas very important, and the game-du-jour was usually very tightlycoupled with the platform. Aside from a couple of exceptions, PCgaming overwhelmingly meant Windows gaming.

The Netscape browser certainly wasn’t a replacement for this.Neither was the Java platform.

This situation led many prospective Windows migrants to declarethat they would make the move to Linux or the Mac or FreeBSD orwhatever, if only they could run their current gaming obsession onit. Dual-booting is a half-measure that seldom held, and the directgraphics card access meant that gaming couldn’t be accommodated viavirtualization, so more often than not they just stuck withWindows.

“But my applications only run on Windows!”

Across the industry hundreds of thousands of solutions havemigrated to the web, and if anything the pace is accelerating.Despite Microsoft submarining the overly-capable Internet Explorerteam — a team that brought us many of the innovations that we nowenjoy in competing browsers — the genie was out of the bottle:Many had experienced the incredible platform freedom, wonderfuldeployment model, and rich interfaces provided by webapplications.

The classic computer purchase justifications (as stated by amillion pleading children trying to convince their parents that anew gaming rig will be productive for the household) — balancingthe checkbook, storing recipes, authoring and sending letters (nowemail), maintaining databases — can all be very competentlyaccomplished online, from any modern browsers available on dozensof platforms. In many ways the experience is superior online, giventhe accessibility of the data from anywhere at any time.

Not every task can be performed online or from a web browser,and for those needs a plethora of cross-platform, often open sourceoptions have appeared (ex. GIMP, Open Office). Yet it remains thatfor an average user, the overwhelming percentage of their computertime now will be spent in their add-in enabled web browser, perhapsaccessorized by one of countless available, many-network supportingIM clients.

Which is, of course, where we circle back to Andreessen’sprediction: The most popular, and arguably capable, cross-platformbrowser is the Firefox browser. It is the phoenix (and wasoriginally named firebird) that rose out of the ashes of thecollapse of Netscape, the source code open sourced and revitalizedwith a many year reworking. While its market share numbers remainrelatively small, its influence has been absolutely extraordinary.Even for sites that see 100% Internet Explorer users, the freedomand diversity offered by Firefox often leads enlighteneddevelopment teams to ensure that they facilitate it just aswell.

The rules of the game have completely changed. While many wereprematurely declaring the end of Microsoft’s dominance for years(every year for the past 7 years or so has been declared “The Yearof Linux” by some open source evangelist or other), it has beenyears since the field has been so open for actual competition.

It has been a long time since the choice of platform held so fewcaveats and limitations.

We are entering a glorious time when the operating system reallyis an unimportant collection of device drivers, no longer drivingcompletely unreleated application choices.