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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