For those astute readers who are no doubt assuming that this is another piece written about the impending death of Microsoft via the eventual triumph of Linux or other open-source software, I shall begin by announcing that this is not the aim of my article. Much has been written on that topic, both good and bad, and I have no intention of adding more material to that already-saturated category.
Instead, I'm taking what I hope is a fresh approach to the idea that Microsoft is killing off the ecology of software that its products currently thrive in. Many have already expounded on the idea that Microsoft is playing into the arms of open source software by continuing its seemingly-eternal cycle of releasing ever more bloated, overfeatured, and security-unconscious products. This does indeed appear to be true, and more recent "innovations" of software-as-service, non-perpetual contracts, forced upgrades, and casual privacy invasions both corporate and consumer only serve to enrage its precious customer base.
I am convinced that beyond all of the previously discussed self-created challenges that Microsoft will face lies another, even greater problem: Microsoft is quietly killing off its developer base.
Most readers here have probably seen the amusing video clips of Microsoft's CEO dancing breathlessly for an adulating audience of Microsoft employees, repeating ad nauseaum one of the core philosophies that the company seems to have held so dear for many years: "Developers, developers, developers, developers, developers!" Perhaps without even realizing the effects of its actions, Microsoft is slowly removing every reason for its developer community to continue writing code for its various platforms.
Back in February 1994, Microsoft was found guilty of patent infringement by a federal jury in a legal action launched by Stac Electronics, who claimed that in the process of incorporating logical drive compression technology into its MS-DOS operating system, Microsoft had infringed on its rights. This was not precisely the first instance where Microsoft had alienated a technology partner, but it is most likely still familiar to many Kuro5hin readers.
In releasing this new version of MS-DOS, Microsoft had incorporated several new technologies into its product that had previously been available only by purchasing additional software from third-party vendors. The new MS-DOS included antivirus and disk defragmentation technology, memory optimization software, and of course the infringing disk compression routines. This was Microsoft's first plunge into the software bundling strategies that it seems so fond of today.
While the antivirus and memory optimization code has been dropped from Microsoft's product line, the disk defragmentation and compression facilities were carried over into Microsoft's release of its new consumer operating system: Windows 95. After the release of the new operating system, there was a brief explosion in the third-party software market. Vendors such as Central Point Software, Symantec, and Qualitas released new versions of their products, updated for Windows, as well as an array of software designed solely for the new platform.
One by one, most of these companies have either been absorbed or driven out of business as they've watched their core products attacked and destroyed by a Microsoft seemingly crazed by the need to incorporate into its products every conceivable facility and feature. Starting with the incorporation of Internet Explorer into later versions of Windows 95, and all of its OS products since, Microsoft has accelerated the cannibalization of its partners' livelihoods.
With the release of Windows XP, Microsoft seems to have driven nails into the coffins of a number of popular software products. Many of the new features (and some of the older features, already available in Windows NT and 2000) seem to compete in areas previously the undisputed territory of other vendors (sometimes even hardware vendors):
Integrated Zip file management: Nico Mak WinZip
Windows XP connection sharing and personal firewalling: Linksys, D-Link, SMC, Netgear, Zone Labs, Internet Security Systems, Symantec, etc.
Remote desktop viewing and "troubleshooting": Symantec PCAnywhere, Tridia Corporation TridiaVNC
Expanded graphics file management: ACD Systems ACDSee
Disk defragmentation: Executive Software International Diskeeper, Symantec Norton Disk Doctor
Theming capabilities: StarDock WindowBlinds
System recovery and file clean-up features: Most of Symantec's "power user" software
New disk manager: PowerQuest Corporation PartitionMagic
Outlook Express and Internet Explorer 6: Qualcomm Eudora, Forte Agent, Opera Software's Opera
This is, of course, only a partial list of new features in Microsoft's new product line, and only a partial list of the vendors that are threatened by them. The trend here seems clear, though: Microsoft is increasing the areas in which it competes with its own developer base. While Windows XP does not incorporate every feature and capability of the products it competes with, in most cases it incorporates all of the basic functionality that most users look for. A user who is new to PCs is exceedingly likely to find most of her needs already addressed, and remain unaware that there are more powerful alternatives to the bolted-in software. In many cases, users who do discover the existence of the competing products will likely decide that the little extra offered by a third-party vendor is not worth the price and complexity of an additional product.
Microsoft shows no signs of slowing or reversing this trend in the future. In fact, it seems that it will be bundling at least one product line with a new release of its Windows operating system line that has been heretofore distinct and separate: SQL Server. To quote MCP Magazine:
"According to sources familiar with Microsoft's plans, the software giant plans to bundle a version of its SQL Server database with Blackcomb as a means to facilitate unified storage services. Some industry watchers have suggested that such a move would open up a whole new can of antitrust worms, but Gartner's Smith cautions that it's too early to raise the red flag on a bundling issue of this kind."
I can only assume that this move will scuttle the competing database products from Oracle, IBM, and others almost overnight. After all, why pay for a database product when the functionality is available for free in every specially-marked box of Windows Crispy Flakes?
Presumably, the needs of business users will be addressed with an Enterprise Edition of Microsoft SQL Server that will speed database transactions, provide better management interfaces, or add some other sort of functionality. Or, more likely - it will allow remote users to connect to the database/filestore, whereas that functionality will be purposely disabled in the core code shipped with the new version of Windows.
The future for Microsoft-compatible security products seems even bleaker; with the chairman's recent ode to security, it appears likely that many products will vanish from the market as the company begins to tighten the screws on the Windows codebase. One might even expect to see a new antivirus bundling initiative, perhaps in partnership with its old friend, Symantec. Such a move would effectively destroy the highly profitable Windows antivirus industry as the new version of Windows appeared with all the necessary functionality available out of the box. The destruction or obsoletion of other security-related products is left as an exercise for the reader.
As it continues on its headlong flight towards a an unwieldy and overbloated kitchen-sink OS, Microsoft can expect to see growing resentment in its developer community, and possibly even an organized resistance in some form. The company frequently complains that it is assailed on all sides - from users, from its competitors, from the government - but it has not yet faced the wrath of discontented developers as they fight back or even desert en masse for other platforms and other alliances. In light of this, commercial software's future - at least on the Windows platform - seems doubtful.