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Fight the Future

Beyond the ersatz fireworks display, the symbolically fraught medal competition, questions of audience demographics, or even the success of the carefully planned Lenovo marketing campaign, the Olympics are about the future of technology. At issue is Microsoft’s Silverlight player which, via an Olympics sponsorship, is now likely deployed on millions of desktops the world over.

Such events being fairly routine, you might reasonably ask why this is of particular importance? Why you, in other words, should care?

The answer, in this case, comes to you via DeWitt Clinton’s excellent piece “On Fighting the Web Itself“:

The short answer is that the technology behind Silverlight, and most certainly the company creating it, has the potential of changing how the web itself works.

Or, at least, that’s part of the answer.

Silverlight is but the latest in a string of attempts to “fork the web,” as my colleague has put it in the past when discussing Adobe’s ambitions with the Flash runtime. Nor is this the first time the potential – and potential threat – of Silverlight has been discussed: Jeremy was right when he said that “Microsoft is thinking much bigger than people seem to be giving them credit for.” For more discussion on the threat of proprietary web runtimes, see here, here, here, here, here, or here.

The logic behind these massive strategic plays is as simple as it is unassailable. As many have noted, the technologies that make up the non-vendor centric web are aging; not well, in some cases. DeWitt said the web revs slowly, and he’s right. Enter sophisticated proprietary runtimes and tooling with fancy UI abilities, the ability to play video and more, and the attraction for both the developer and the consumer is obvious.

Meanwhile, the vendor that arrives bearing these gifts is merely seeking an opportunity to cement their place at the table in a world that’s increasingly heterogeneous. In a perfect world, for many within these would-be Kings of the Web, their runtime would not only augment but actually supplant the web development experience, guaranteeing them not only a place at the table but the lion’s share of the meal.

As Christopher Blizzard describes this scenario:

Then there’s the other side of the metric. That as an ecosystem expands it enhances the power of a single player in the market instead of creating many players in the market. Change in that market requires the permission of only that one player and that one player can make decisions on behalf of everyone who is also part of it. That’s not healthy. And it’s not the open web.

Frankly, anyone who is surprised by this behavior hasn’t been paying attention. It is in the nature of most every vendor to seek the elimination of its competition – in spite of the reality that competition is both necessary and beneficial to the firm in the long term (see, Explorer, Internet) – because that way profit lies. Potentially immense profit.

That the behavior is logical, however, doesn’t make it any less worrisome. Particularly, it must be said, in the case of Microsoft. While many harbor concerns about Adobe’s ambitions with regard to Flash and the future of the web, they are less threatening, frankly, both in their ability to execute and their history.

As Gruber bluntly put it:

The strategic bottom line is that Microsoft, under Ballmer, feels compelled to compete everywhere – that they must confront any company achieving any significant success, no matter how far afield that success is from the areas where Microsoft is already winning or doing well.

While this is perhaps something of a harsh assessment – Microsoft is as likely to miss the importance of certain markets, e.g. search, as anyone else and thus must compete broadly to protect its interests – it accurately distills the concerns that many in the industry have for Microsoft’s efforts vis a vis Silverlight.

What has happened before, after all, could well happen again. And nobody wants to be fooled twice. Or three times, or whatever it is.

Personally, I hope that Microsoft, or Adobe, or others will look at the history of the web and conclude that a single dominant platform – as we’ve seen in the operating system and other markets – is unlikely. And that a complementary role is – counterintuitively – in their best interests, because the alternative is being routed around.

I hope this not because I’m convinced like DeWitt that we need all of the abilities these new runtimes provide – I am not, and I think history supports that position. I hope Adobe, Microsoft and the rest get it, rather, because the alternative is a protracted fight. A fight for the “generative web” against a closed future.

And don’t we all have better things to do than fight the future?

Categories: Application Development, Business Models, Desktop, Network.