A recent comment left in my blog by someone named Nigel states "Not only is Microsoft unable to create technological tidal waves, it constantly misses the waves produced by others. Aren't you guys learning from the past?"

After watching a number of recent trends in the software industry I've been struck by how many of them were originally started by Microsoft but later abandoned only to be picked up by the rest of the software industry a few years later.

EXHIBIT A - XML Syndication (CDF & ActiveDesktop)
Content syndication  using RSS has emerged as the next big thing. We have Apple's iTunes supporting podcasting, VC funds dedicated to funding startups building on RSS and practically every news organization on the Web sporting RSS feeds.

However the basic approach and technology behind RSS and XML content syndication was originally proposed by Microsoft with its Channel Definition Format (CDF) and ActiveDesktop technology. As with most aspects of the push technology fad of the late 1990s, usage of the technology languished. However CDF did inspire Dave Winer and Netscape to become interested in content syndication using XML. In 2000, Dan Brickley sent a mail to the RSS-DEV mailing list entitled RSS-Classic, RSS 1.0 and a historical debt which points out that the syndication formats created by Dave Winer & Netscape owed a lot to CDF.

Of course, the original killer app for RSS has been blogging. Without the rise of blogging it is unlikely that RSS would be as popular as it has become today.

Another popular trend on the Web today is using DHTML and server callbacks to build Web applications This approach has been recently been named Asynchronous Javascript & XML or AJAX for short.  This trend really became hot after Jesse James Garrett penned his article Ajax: A New Approach to Web Applications which highlighted the power of applications built using this approach.

As Adam Bosworth points out in his post AJAX Reconsidered and Scott Guthrie in his post Atlas Project, the basic building blocks of AJAX (DHTML & the XMLHTTP object) were invented by Microsoft. However as both Adam & Scott point out, the primary focus of building AJAX applications at Microsoft was on targetting business customers with applications like Outlook Web Access. Eventually interest in building rich internet applications at Microsoft swung towards XAML and Avalon and away from DHTML.

Until Google unleashed GMail, Google Maps and Google Suggest on the Web. Now AJAX is the new hotness.  

EXHIBIT C - Web APIs & Web 2.0 (Hailstorm)
If you hang around web development pundits long enough, you'll eventually hear the phrase "Web 2.0". This is a monicker for the increasing trend of treating web sites as web platforms. Every cool website has APIs these days. At Google Web APIs page you can find APIs for Google Maps, Google Search and Google AdSense. At the Yahoo! Developer Network you can find APIs for Yahoo! Maps, Yahoo! Search, Flickr & Yahoo! MyWeb. On the Amazon Web Services page you can find APIs for creating and searching listings on Amazon. At the eBay Developer Program you can find the same for eBay. Smaller sites also have APIs as are evidenced by the del.icio.us API, Bloglines API or the 43 Things API. Then there are all the weblogging APIs and RSS feeds out there that allow users to create and consume content outside of the traditional window of the Web browser.

Turning web sites into web platforms that can be interacted with from any platform running on any device was a key part of the original vision behind Microsoft's Hailstorm initiative. However there were other parts of the initiative that didn't sit well with potential customers and it was quietly abandoned.

I'm not sure whether the aformentioned trends count as "technological tidal waves" but they are definitely significant to how developers and end users utilize the Web. In all three situations Microsoft started with a vision that was quite innovative, hit some roadblocks and scrapped initiatives instead of changing tactics. Eventually our competitors learned from our mistakes and make us look late to the party when we finally get over our initial failure enough to try again.

I suspect that in a few years, a fourth example that should be added to this list would be comparing Passport to efforts such as the Liberty Alliance. Then again, from reading Kim Cameron's blog it seems that we are trying to switch tactics in the digital identity space instead of giving up.  That is a welcome change.


Categories: Life in the B0rg Cube | Web Development
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Sunday, July 10, 2005 8:13:49 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Dare: I'm glad you posted this. I'm as quick as anyone to kinda dismiss Microsoft's place in things, but credit should go where credit is due. A little reminder never hurts.
Sunday, July 10, 2005 8:39:10 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Thanks for the excellent response, Dare. Indeed, if you put it this way, Microsoft was way ahead of time in some respects (which in itself is good enough a reason to start whining "But why are you so poor at sending your great stuff to the market?" :)). However, the general perception of some people is "Microsoft waits for ideas to prove themselves and only then invests in their development".

After a bit of digging on the net, I think another couple of examples of innovation ahead of its time are Sky Server (http://skyserver.sdss.org/ and a scientific paper at http://research.microsoft.com/scripts/pubs/view.asp?TR_ID=MSR-TR-2001-104) and Terra Server (http://terraserver.microsoft.com/). On the other hand, Google Earth is the new kid on the block compared to Terra Server, but it made a bigger bang.

Which leads to another question: Is Microsoft turning into a good source of innovation only to be exploited by others? (like Apple, Xerox and others were in their time). What are you doing to (1) change the public perception mentioned above and (2) make sure you get the R&D people in sync with marketing people to create tidal waves and benefit from them yourselves? (since you do have the resources to do so)
Monday, July 11, 2005 1:52:09 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
In response to Nigel, part of the reasons that Microsoft's innovations may not garner as much public excitement and notice compared to when similar innovations are presented by other companies is precisely because of the breadth of Microsoft's product offerings. Microsoft’s dominance also evokes fear in potential partners; the failure of Hailstorm is a key case is point.

It takes much more marketing effort from Microsoft to publicize a new product compared to what is required of Google. Wait till Google offers, say 30 services, and you'd see their difficulty in making the public aware of new product offerings.

I might add that the public has also somewhat pigeonholed Microsoft as an OS/Productivity Software/Development tools company. I believe that this is part of the reason why it took much more investment to make MSN (compared to AOL and Yahoo!) profitable. Whereas AOL, Yahoo!, and Google are easily associated with web email and search, respectively, Microsoft must spend more to educate consumers that it also offers web and search services.

Microsoft’s problem is not unique, however; it is a problem faced by other companies that are successful for widely recognized products. The antidote might sometimes be to spin off a new company from the parent to develop/market these new “sexy” services; the spin-off might be able to achieve much faster recognition and growth in new innovation areas.

- Taiwo
Taiwo Ayedun
Monday, July 11, 2005 9:13:26 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)

Excellent post, I must add in Microsoft's defence, the real problem is not coming up with a piece of technology, but coming up with a useful application for that technology. There are hundreds of examples (not just from Microsoft) of excellent technology without a real use. Sometimes a real use never comes along!

Something from my own experience is XTend (a file system thingie based on tagging) I created in 2001. I had a good piece of technology (IMHO) but no one understood it or was ready for it. Sure I was bad at marketing etc etc, but the main problem was I got seduced by the technology, and thought that was enough. It isn't! You have to have a compelling use for the technology too.

In the book 'A good hard kick in the Arse' by Rob Adams, there is one comment worth it's weight in gold. Paraphrasing somewhat:

New technology is useless, unless it can be applied to better solve a problem people are 'already solving' badly.

That is why things like Del.icio.us and Flickr have made tagging hot.
Monday, July 11, 2005 10:27:30 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
It's varied -- bad marketing, bad implementation, bad strategy, vaporware perceptions, buggy and insecure reputations, predatory and deceptive practices, Licensing 6.0, wholesale lack of external trust and bad patent protection. The scripters and the open sourcers just re-heated the cold abandonware. The technology bubbled around, then reformed, stuck together with the usual markup scotch-tape that always appeals to the grassroots. But XML owes itself to EDI. So Microsoft is hardly always the starting point, they pick up in the middle too sometimes.

And Microsoft's dominance and all-consuming reputation (perhaps sometimes irrational, but perception tends to be taken as truth), tends to shy people away, aka Passport and Intuit. Plus no one trusts the first two implementations from Microsoft anyways (and that's those that actually ship, tons more in the vaporware pipeline). The '3 times to get it right' is a sad company moniker. All this great innovation? So? People tend to wait until it becomes a driving force, and has some real applicational-use behind it, the back-end is no good on it's own. Plus I fault the developer-focus, they think in terms of the tech, rather than the more anthropological customer focus. Marketing to most Microsoft people is tech conference hopping and tossing complex stuffs to McCann or whatever stick-in-the-mud flashy agency manages to catch their eye at any given moment. Marketing overhaul, would be case number one. And even when innovation is there, Tablet PC/Media Center they can't make it stick in wider world.

But at the heart of it all, most of the innovation is pointless anyways, OS and Office commodization are what made them kings, so the R&D guys and geeks can dream up new stuff to eternally subidize, or abandon and strategy tax away.
Monday, July 11, 2005 3:11:27 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
No doubt Microsoft is innovative, and does come up this great ideas, but it seems to lack the nerve to carry things forward by providing a killer app. For Example, Ajax is definitely a great idea, but look at what popularized it. Certainly not Outlook Web access. It was killer Apps like Gmail and Google Maps.
Monday, July 11, 2005 5:25:55 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Agree with Christopher that the issues are varied. The examples you listed suffer from one or a few of the following:
1) not that innovative (single signon and web services have been around forever; performing http POSTs from the browser is not innovative)
2) poorly implemented (XMLHttpRequest should be simply "HttpRequest"; the "xml" totally screwed it up).
3) platform-specific (only Windows version of Web Outlook uses XMLHttpRequest which completely defeats the purpose of a cross platform, richer Web UI).
4) not easy to implement (all the web services you mention are takin goff because they are much simpler than anything MSFT is doing; for example, non offer only a SOAP interface)
Monday, July 11, 2005 8:03:41 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
In the case of AJAX, I don't think it was in Microsoft's hands to make it popular. It wasn't until other browsers implemented the XMLHttpRequest object that it could be considered a viable platform to base your internet application on.
Microsoft used it for Outlook Web Access, which assumed that the clients could control their platform to an extent, and guarantee that IE was available.
Joshua Flanagan
Wednesday, July 13, 2005 2:39:06 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
I think AJAX was buried on purpose. Microsoft makes almost all its money from fat clients, so it didn't want to sell an idea that would boost the capabilities of thin-clients that could then be run on Linux or some other OS. The more capable you make thin clients, the less reason people have to buy fat clients.

That is also a big part of the reason MS halted almost all innovation in IE after it had taken the market from Netscape. Ditto web api's. Microsoft is deathly afraid that people are going to run applications over the web, instead of one windows.

That is why Microsoft spent 500 million dollars developing IE and then gave away free, and also broke lots of anti-trust laws to take over the browser market from Netscape. The idea was to gain full control of the net, and then extend the protocols, so that it could stop anyone who tried to use the net to replace the desktop.

Microsoft's number one priority is hanging onto its Windows and Office monopolies, and in order to do this, it will eagerly sacrifice innovations that users would find very valuable.

This is all, by the way, a classic example of Christensen's book The Innovator's Dilemma.
Wednesday, July 13, 2005 5:07:57 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
BTW, Dare, you might try a different template for your blog. It's nearly unreadable on Safari. And even on IE the margins are much to wide forcing the content into a small column down the middle.
Thursday, July 21, 2005 5:17:55 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
"Microsoft started with a vision that was quite innovative, hit some roadblocks and scrapped initiatives instead of changing tactics."

This sentence reminded me of the much missed ObjectSpaces initiative. I am not implying that Microsoft invented O/R mapping, just that it would have been very useful to have a O/R mapping standard for ADO.NET.
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