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When the web isn't

November 15, 1999
by Zac Belado

With all the talk about the recent findings of fact in the Microsoft/DOJ trial there have been discussions about how the trial is a moot point since Microsoft and the Wintel alliance that it presides over are at a recent low point of its power and influence. They point to the rise of Linux and the re-emergence of Apple as indicators of the waning power of Microsoft.

So it was interesting to read a recent article on C|net's Builder.com by Dan Shafer talking about the lack of Mac and Linux support in web-based applications. Why is it, Dan asks, that the web is starting to develop into a Windows-based world. When looking for a web-based application system (email, calendar, scheduling, to-do lists) Dan found, shock horror, that most sites not only had system requirements but they also didn't support the Mac or Linux. Is the web becoming a Windows-only network? And is this a result of Microsoft's clout or are there other factors involved?

It's the suede-denim secret police

The idea of web sites creating web-based applications that only work with Windows systems is firmly rooted in the fact that Microsoft-based system are in use by a vast majority of users. And, more importantly, by an even larger number of business users.

Companies like HotOffice (www.hotoffice.com) or Xdrive (www.xdrive.com) are building systems that include Windows-only features simply because they know that there will be a thriving market for the services if they cater to a Windows market. When I use my free web-drive at xDrive.com on my Mac, I have to do it via a web-based interface. On my PC I can access the same files and space through the Windows Explorer. Microsoft builds hooks into its web browser that allow it to integrate into the OS in a way that isn't possible with other browsers such as Netscape and Opera. Or even on the Mac with IE and Office.

Developers can use these Windows-only features to add capabilities to their projects that they hope will differentiate their services from their competitors. The fact that this makes the services unusable by Mac or Linux users (and in some instances Netscape users on the PC) just isn't a concern. That is a fact of life and a sad part of the way the computer industry has developed. The games market has been like this for years. The web is getting the same sort of treatment that any other area of software development has suffered under for the past ten years.

Whose fault is it?

It's always easy (and sometimes fun) to just blame Microsoft for these problems but part of the current situation lies in the rather sad way that Netscape squandered their lead in browser technology. While Microsoft was piddling away trying to figure out what the web was, Netscape took their predominant position as the web browser and did... nothing. Microsoft then bought Internet Explorer from SpyGlass (I mean they "innovated" the browser from the company) and Netscape still did... nothing. And if you believe the evidence in the Microsoft trial, Microsoft then delivered a veritable death threat to Netscape and Netscape in reply did...not much.

Netscape ultimately learned a very important lesson. You can't really argue with the folks that build the OS. But they didn't act on it. Instead of trying to work around that barrier prepared by Microsoft by opening up their own set of API calls and component architecture (or anything) Netscape decided to fight against the biggest software company in the world by Microsoft's own rules. With the expected results.

Not that Netscape really had a chance. But at least they could have strung the fight out a bit longer. Ultimately Microsoft's control of the Window's OS (and the bargaining position they wielded on the Mac with their control of Office) meant that Microsoft was going to win. Microsoft could craft API calls and integrate their browser in such a way as to deliver tools that other developers could use.

If you build it...and drag them to it...they will come

Initially Microsoft went after the web developers, the HTML grunts. It offered them all sorts of sparkling HTML and DHTML toys for them to use. Not surprisingly most of them said "no thanks". Primarily because the business model (or work model) of the average HTML jockey involves trying to get the biggest cross platform, cross browser bang for the least amount of work. Using custom tags and custom DOM objects from Microsoft meant that they would have to reduplicate their work. So they didn't.

Microsoft's final strategy, and the one that ultimately did Netscape in, was to increase the browser's access to the operating system. But only Microsoft's browser. And only under Windows. So my xdrive web-drive shows up in my Windows Explorer but I'm relegated to using a web-based system on my Mac.

Microsoft moved their focus from web page designers to the developing system of web-based application providers. If web developers weren't going to give them the leverage they needed then maybe the solution was to provide the tools to build a business (or a business model) around. Perhaps, thought the Microsoft execs, if we give them enough tools, and enough hooks into the OS they will be able to exploit them in such a way that the feature sets of the web-based apps they will build will be compelling enough for them to abandon (or delay) their work on other platforms and browsers.

And it worked. Small suprise. Presented with the tools to build their applications in a Windows/IE only fashion most busineses have choosen to follow this path. At least initially. And that's all that Microsoft needs.

Blogger, a weblog system, has Windows IE only tools. ThirdVoice (whatever you think of it) only recently got a Netscape plug-in. And it still doesn't run on Macs or Linux machines.

No one cares if Microsoft wants to add web functionality to their OS...as long as all developers have access to it. Anything less is using their position as an application and operating system provider as a weapon to bludgeon their competition. Which is what currently what Microsoft is in trouble for.

But the recent rash of web applications that are Windows-only is more a "chicken or the egg" dilemma than a clear cut case of malfeasance on Microsoft's part. Microsoft provides tools that only it, as the operating system provider, could provide, but they get used because of Microsoft's dominant position in the market place. Which, of course, helps to feed that dominant position.

Fortune's wheel constantly turns, but in this case, it just seems to be running Windows.

Zac Belado is a programmer, web developer and rehabilitated ex-designer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He currently works as an Application Developer for a Vancouver software company. His primary focus is web applications built using ColdFusion. He has been involved in multimedia and web-based development, producing work for clients such as Levi Straus, Motorola and Adobe Systems. As well, he has written for the Macromedia Users Journal and been a featured speaker at the Macromedia Users Convention.

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