March 4, 2005

Becoming a programmer for Windows is like becoming a dentist for a Tyrannosaurus Rex

I wrote this in 1998. It's funny how much less controversial it seems now. I just read it again and, frankly, I'm still proud of it. So, here it is again, complete and unchanged. Basically, the only thing I'd take back at this point is that I'm not that president of Omni any more.

Wil Shipley, President, Omni Development, Inc.
May 5, 1998

Over the last year and a half since I was transplanted into the community, I've occasionally heard Mac developers on various forums cry out, "Why don't I just become a developer for Windows?" This is in response to various perceived injuries perpetrated by Apple, including possibly dropping QuickDraw GX, changing the Mac UI, embracing UNIX, and increasing the price of some developer support options.

Usually, I assume this is a rhetorical question, like a pouty teenager asking, "Well, why don't I just go jump off a bridge, then?" But, I feel that too many innocent observers may have heard this question too often, and asked, with all sincerity, "Why don't all programmers use Windows? The Windows market is bigger, after all."

Lots of small programmers have a vision that working with Microsoft is like being one of those little toothbrush birds for crocodiles -- sure, the crocodile is the one eating the zebras and gazelles, but there's plenty of crumbs left in the cracks between his teeth. The crocodiles don't hurt the birds, as they appreciate clean teeth, and the tiny birds can live very well off the morsels that the 20-foot crocodile deems not worth bothering with, so everybody wins.

The problem with this analogy is toothbrush birds never grow up to be crocodiles -- they spend their whole lives just living off the gunk in crocodile's teeth. Most people don't set out to create a tiny company; they want to create the next killer app, and become, if not the next Microsoft, maybe the next Adobe, or the next MacroMedia. Nobody wants to stay a tiny bird forever, but that means giving up the gunk and going for the big game.

A better simile is that becoming a programmer for Windows is like becoming a dentist for a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Sure, the market is big (lots of seats, lots of teeth), but both Microsoft and the king of dinos are vicious carnivores, and both will snap their jaws shut as soon as share their leavings with you. Rexes don't distinguish between symbiotic birds and predators -- it's all meat to them.

Microsoft is deathly afraid that now they are a huge company they won't have creative ideas. This is a good fear, because it's true: how much has Word changed in the last 8 years? How much has Excel changed? I'm not talking about adding a feature here and a feature there, I'm talking about really changing the way people use software.

Microsoft doesn't know how to innovate any more. The problem is that when Microsoft looks at new ideas, they don't evaluate whether the idea will move the industry forward, they ask, "how will it help us sell more copies of Windows?" (This is an actual quote of Bill Gates in The Seattle Weekly, April 30, 1998).

So, their business model has come to this: wait for young companies to create new products, and if the product starts to be successful, crush the company and take its market. Some examples, by no means complete:

In 1995, Netscape pioneered web browsers, but Microsoft simply bought some code, hired a bunch of programmers to duplicate Netscape's work, and now gives away Internet Explorer. They paid Apple millions to bundle Internet Explorer instead of Netscape with Mac OS, and Microsoft is planning to bundle IE with Win98. Microsoft even claimed (in a letter sent to Wall Street analysts last week) that it'll severely impact the economy if they can't include a web browser in Win98, even though the economy ran just fine before 1995, when Netscape brought the first commercial web browsers to market.

The code Microsoft licensed was from Spyglass, who had written a web client. Microsoft only gave them a couple hundred thousand dollars up front, but promised a percentage of sales to Spyglass. Well, since Microsoft gives away Internet Explorer, they didn't pay Spyglass anything. Spyglass sued. According to PCWeek (April 20, 1998), Spyglass had to abandon that market and moved into embedded applications, which Microsoft moved into as well. So, Spyglass switched to making "integrated offerings for Microsoft products" in order to, in the words of Spyglass VP Mike Tyrell, "not be 'Microsofted' again".

In 1996, Netscape decided the money was really in servers, and started selling their first commercial web server. In response Microsoft wrote their internet server and bundled it, free, with Windows NT.

In 1994, Microsoft started to license compression technology from a company called Stac, which invented the original disk-doubler. But, after Microsoft had looked at Stac's source code, Microsoft said, "Nah, we're going to write our own and crush you. Thanks anyway." Stac sued Microsoft, but Microsoft counter-sued Stac, and Microsoft got an injunction against Stac preventing them from shipping their disk doubler until the suit was resolved. Then, since they had tied up Stac's revenue source, Microsoft just sat back and waited for Stac to run out of money as the legal system slowly cranked away. If you can't guess who won, check out the DoubleSpace utility that ships with Win95.

Perhaps the best example of Microsoft's voraciousness is their dealings with Intuit, creators of Quicken, which was at one point the best-selling PC software of all time. Microsoft first came out with Money, to compete with Quicken. Nobody wanted Money. So Microsoft reduced the price -- offering 'special deals' on Money for as low as $10. (This is a practice called 'dumping', and it's supposedly illegal in America -- it's what we accused Japanese semiconductor makers of doing with memory chips years back when we put a huge tariff on such imports.)

Even at the low, low price, nobody bought Money. So Microsoft made an offer to buy Intuit, which the government, in their very first stirring against Microsoft's monopoly, blocked. Microsoft then started teaming up with banks, paying them to advertise that transactions could be directly downloaded into Microsoft Money, conveniently overlooking the fact that the file format was the Quicken format, and therefore Quicken would work just as well. Finally, Microsoft started giving away Money with subscriptions to MSDN.

Do I have to go on? Microsoft wants total domination of the software market. If you create a mildly successful program on Windows, Microsoft will attempt to kill you. They've already got a stomach full of the severed heads of other innovators just like you.

Yes, the Mac market is smaller. But it's been a long time since Apple had the kind of clout to say offhandedly, "We can't decide whether to become your customer or to put you out of business," as a Microsoft executive said to a friend of Robert X. Cringely.

It comes down to a choice: do you want to support Microsoft, the monopoly whose only goal is to increase their market share; or do you want to support Apple, the company that is trying to move technology forward?

Put this way, it sounds like a moral dilemma, and many people believe companies should be amoral and market-driven. But in truth, it's not a moral dilemma, it's a question of whether you want to help make Microsoft stronger (so they'll be that much more powerful when they decide to crush you), or you want to fight them now.

The beauty is that it's actually easier to succeed when fighting than when giving in. My company made millions just servicing the NEXTSTEP market, which was a tiny fraction of the industry even when compared to the Mac market. It was easier to advertise in a small market, easier to reach customers, and NeXT, like Apple today, was eager to help us rather than crush us. Writing code for Yellow Box is ten times easier than writing Windows code. Three programmers at Omni have written a web browser that has the features of Netscape, IE and more, which runs on Rhapsody, NT, 95, and (soon) Mac OS.

Microsoft isn't invincible. They won't be around forever. Dinosaurs are huge and hidebound, and some global change always comes along for which they aren't prepared. We little birds just have to stay out of their mouths in the meantime.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Microsoft already seems to be a company in decline.

March 04, 2005 11:42 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

How come the President of Omni Development, Inc. is fired by Omni Development, Inc?

March 08, 2005 11:31 PM

Anonymous Davey said...

This further enforces my argument when users ask me to port my software to Windows :-).

March 10, 2005 1:54 PM

Blogger Wil Shipley said...

How'd Steve Jobs get fired from Apple?

March 13, 2005 4:57 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

How about Konfabulator and Dashboard? Maybe something has changed?

July 19, 2005 2:43 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice post here. I tell people all the time that Micro$oft sucks and they never believe me, lol. Hopefully, this will make them realize :)

July 25, 2005 10:01 PM

Blogger Chicken Blood said...

Interesting how you berate Microsoft for 'crushing' Netscape by bundling a free browser. Conversely in another blog, your reaction to Apple releasing Safari for free (and rendering OmniWeb somewhat redundant) is "respect".

Is this the famous MacZealot "reality distortion field" we occasionally hear about?:-)

September 11, 2006 1:25 PM

Blogger Wil Shipley said...

Do you even know who wrote OmniWeb?

September 11, 2006 2:58 PM

Blogger Chicken Blood said...

I know it's a product of the OmniGroup who you used to lead.

Or did you mean do I know the names of the actual programmers? The answer is no.

September 12, 2006 1:31 PM

Blogger Wil Shipley said...

So, knowing what you know about my position in all this, is it possible that, instead of suffering from reality distortion, I actually have some extra information that makes me not upset that Apple wrote a product similar to mine?

September 12, 2006 1:44 PM

Blogger Chicken Blood said...

Oh I see, they warned you first. Fair enough, mea culpa.

September 12, 2006 2:41 PM

Blogger Michael Innes said...

So, what do you think of iBook for the iPad? Did it just become your crocodile?

I hope you had a hand in creating this.

January 27, 2010 11:16 AM


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