Will History Repeat Itself With Google Playing The Part Of Lotus?

from the could-be-a-stretch dept

History often repeats itself in the tech world and Joel Spolsky is seeing history repeating itself in the web application space. Using the example of Lotus in the office software space, he argues that the company lost relevance to Microsoft because it (wrongly) focused on optimizing performance and features for a platform (DOS) that was quickly becoming obsolete. In the meantime, Microsoft and Apple built really cool features for their office software and waited for platform capabilities to catch up (inevitably) due to Moore’s Law. He then equates Google to the latter-day Lotus, painting a scenario where Google smugly laughs off a bloated but feature-rich (imaginary) NewSDK from a bratty startup, only to then get disrupted by this SDK when browser capabilities improve. Of course, part of the analogy breaks down because Microsoft was hardly a bratty startup when it succeeded where Lotus failed.

The prediction was serious enough to elicit a response from a Googler who disagrees with this association. The analogy is very interesting, and in many ways, we are indeed seeing a similar evolutionary path in web applications. Joel identified three platform characteristics, namely, a portable programming language, high interactivity and UI standards as important phases in the desktop world, that will eventually happen in the web world. And, he suggests, whoever can gain traction doing all three will have as much impact as Microsoft Windows back in the desktop era. This might be the case, but the more interesting question is whether it is even possible to achieve dominance from scratch just by doing all three?

On the web today, we are not seeing a lack of effort towards language portability (open-source Javascript libraries like Prototype, JQuery or Dojo) high interactivity (Scriptaculous, Yahoo/Google Developers API, Google Web Toolkit) and UI standards (all the CSS frameworks and Yahoo UI Best Practices). There are even efforts that are heading towards a “cut-and-paste” functionality on the web, with efforts like Microformats, the Semantic Web, GData API and even XML standard markups in different domains. There are also companies (Backbase, Nexaweb, Bindows, Tibco General Interface, Bindows) aspiring to be Joel’s NewSDK by providing comprehensive tools for AJAX development. In some regards, you can argue that through Flash, Adobe has achieved all three in some important domains like video streaming, video conferencing and animations on the web, and with Flex and AIR, they are extending their ambitions to more general domains. The reigning giants are also not without ambitions in this area, with efforts like Microsoft’s Silverlight, and Google hiring Mozilla developers and developing client-side technologies like Google Gears. As you can see, many players, ranging from big companies to small startups to open-source projects, are already pretty active in moving web applications along its maturation path, but still no one is as dominant on the web as Microsoft was on the desktop.

Perhaps one needs to remember that Microsoft became dominant on the desktop through shrewd business tactics, not by being the OS that developers love best. BeOS, Next, Apple and Linux have all tried to challenge Microsoft directly on the desktop by providing more compelling features but Microsoft remains undefeated. Perhaps having massive distribution (whatever way you get it) is an important factor? There are a handful of companies who have varying degrees of massive distribution on the web; Google (through search), Adobe (through Flash), Yahoo (through the portal), Firefox/Mozilla (through the browser), Apple (through iTunes/iPod/digital entertainment), Facebook/MySpace (through social networking) and not the least, Microsoft (through Windows/IE, and not to forget, the inventor of Asynchronous Javascript, the AJ in AJAX). Would these companies be in a better position to be Joel’s NewSDK?

Yes, Joel is right in that history is indeed repeating itself in many ways, but it seems unlikely that anyone (especially Google) will be blindsided by a bratty upstart. If so, that startup will be making history, not repeating it.

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Companies: google, lotus

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Comments on “Will History Repeat Itself With Google Playing The Part Of Lotus?”

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RandomThoughts (user link) says:

Google’s revenue is web advertising. Maybe Google doesn’t really care about web applications except for the fact that people that are using web applications will be on the web to view more advertising.

If that is true, then Google doesn’t really care if someone elses web applications or successful or if theirs are, as long as web applications take off.

Their revenue comes from the ads, and pretty much nothing else.

Joel Coehoorn says:

Right now there are a number of really great toolkits on the market that come pretty close to “NewSDK”. The only difference between them and this NewSDK is the lack of traction. Right now if I want to build a new web site, and I want it to be all fancy and AJAXy, I’m going to pick a toolkit.

But which one? There are so many. If one or two toolkits can start winning out over the others just enough, new developers will gravitate towards them. Why? Because we want them to still be around two years from now when it comes time to give the site a face-lift, and we don’t want to have to break what already works. Because then we can use the tools in that kit to make our site instantly compatible on several levels with thousands of other sites using the same kit (this is something no SDK on the market that I know of does yet, but we’re getting there soon) rather than mere dozens. And because I’ll know that my time spent learning this SDK will help me get another job down the road somewhere.

Does having 1/3 of all web developers in the world using your product count for nothing if you give it away for free as open source? Maybe, but I’d have to think there would be some big opportunities there.

chris (profile) says:

the new frontier

relying on powerful hardware to police your sloppy code is NEVER a good idea. in the coming years it might be the worst idea ever.

google has something like a million servers. their concern isn’t ever increasing computing power… it’s the powering and cooling of millions of machines in the current ecologic and economic climate with the specters of global warming and peak oil looming on the horizon.

it’s such a concern that they, and other data centers, have told intel and AMD, ibm and HP, and many others to make machines run cooler and use less electricity. in the future, green computing may be synonymous with affordable computing.

the 486 sucks by today’s standards, but it didn’t require a fan to cool the CPU and it didn’t require a 500 watt power supply. boundless computing power is only possible with boundless affordable energy.

if peak oil or global warming are anything resembling real, then power and cooling are going to be a real concern, real soon.

don’t get me started on bandwidth. in america, everyone who is going to get broadband already has it. there is no competition, there are no new entrants to the market, and there is no reason for the incumbents to increase speeds or improve quality of service.

moore’s law isn’t dead, it’s just superseded by the laws of economics and the laws of thermodynamics.

Kin says:

the new frontier

Chris, your comment hardly makes sense when related to the article. It is a question of technology versus capacity, but not quite how you’re thinking.

From the Googler: “…The bigger problem is bandwidth and latency. Bandwidth does not increase at a pace at all similar to Moore’s law. A lot of people have broadband now, but the networks themselves are overloaded (the tubes, if you will, are clogged)…”

This is the issue at hand. Microsoft has the freedom to bloat their software, what with terrabit drives and the increasing performance of Joe Business’s computers. Google and other web apps, on the other side of the spectrum, need to deal with both latency and bandwidth first in order to expand their products to the same capability, along with needing to worry about crossplatform compatibility and stability.

I can see both sides of the argument here, but I have faith in Google. Along with rapidly changing technology comes the capability to deal with its inadequacies.

chris (profile) says:

Re: the new frontier

kin, i am assuming that you are talking about my bandwidth comment. peter colijn’s rebuttal (the other hyper link in the article) says that google has to focus on optimization because google’s apps are constrained by bandwidth. he goes on to say that internet bandwidth does not increase in capacity like computer hardware does. he has an excellent point, but he doesn’t say why that is.

i said residential network bandwidth does not grow in capacity the way that computer hardware does because there is not nearly as much competition in that market as there is in the consumer PC market.

most neighborhoods in america have two or fewer choices of internet service providers (the local phone monopoly and the local cable monopoly) that have little reason to expand the capacity of their networks or improve the quality of their services because there is so little competition in that market.

so, google has to optimize it’s applications because while bandwidth is plentiful today compared to 10 years ago, there is no guarantee that it will improve by that margin in another 10 years. i think that this is why they have purchased so much dark fiber, why they are so interested in net neutrality, and why they are so interested in newly available wireless spectrum.

in regards to hardware capacity, i am sure that as long as the market allows hardware manufacturers to focus purely on improving capacity then then moore’s law will continue just as it always has. however, if the market changes, then manufacturers will have to change along with the market.

if businesses give more importance to thermal and electrical efficiency (consistent with the current “green computing” trend), then the exponential growth of hardware capacity may be reduced or even stop as manufacturers focus their engineering efforts on efficiency.

Blaise Alleyne (user link) says:

Google not being criticized

I read Joel Spolsky’s blog post on the topic and it really wasn’t a criticism of Google. If anything, I think it was a bit of a compliment and a caution. He was using Gmail as something that was wildly successful and doesn’t seem to show any signs of falling behind, which was Lotus back before they lost huge market share to Microsoft. It was just an attempt to put the historical lesson into a “contemporary” setting with AJAX and Gmail *shrugs*. Google may make those mistakes, but I don’t think he was claiming that they have been making them or that they necessarily will make them.

At least, that’s how I read it.

Malcolm Johnson says:

The downfall of Lotus

The downfall of Lotus was actually precipitated more directly by the company’s insane method of copy protection which involved mucking about with the hard disk, so that if anyone reformatted it – bang went their Lotus 123 installation. In my organization we quickly abandoned Lotus, as did several others with which I was acquainted.

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