For those of you who have read my blarticle "The Increasing Tail", i got a fantastic, insightful, and lengthy comment from Jim Plamondon, an ex-Microsoftie. I wanted to republish his comment as it adds an interesting insider dimension to the history of Apple and Microsoft that I wrote about in the blarticle.
p.s. - If you have a second, check out Jim's latest project at www.thummer.com. Having worked at the MIT Media Lab with Tod Machover on new music interfaces (I was on the Brain Opera team very briefly), i find Jim's latest project very intriguing!
I read with interest your blarticle of 8th February, “The Increasing Tail,” which seeks to combine the notions of “increasing returns” and “the long tail.” Overall, I agree whole-heartedly with its conclusions. Please allow me to comment on some of its points.
First, my bona fides. I started as a software developer in Silicon Valley, focusing primarily on the Mac platform. When Windows 3.0 caught fire, I realized that no matter how good my code, it would fail commercially if it targeted the wrong platform – so I became very interested in how platforms gained market dominance. Because Microsoft clearly understood how to make its platforms “win,” in 1992 I joined its Developer Relations Group (DRG). There, I designed and executed strategies that established Microsoft’s new platform technologies as de facto industry standards, and gave internal courses on the theory and practice of doing so. I retired from Microsoft in 2001, after a brief stint at Microsoft Research.
Here are some comments on Microsoft that are relevant to your discussion.
Microsoft’s understanding of the importance of independent software vendors (ISVs) to Windows’ success can be traced to three men. First among these is certainly Bill Gates, whose experience selling programming language tools and DOS provided him with invaluable lessons in the practical use of network effects. The other key people were the Myhrvold brothers, Cameron and Nathan, who both joined Microsoft in 1986. Among Nathan’s many degrees is a master’s in mathematical economics from Princeton, while Cameron’s degree is in rhetoric – “the art of persuasion” – from Berkeley.
Combining Bill’s experience, Nathan’s analysis, and Cameron’s execution as founding head of DRG, Microsoft created an ISV-focused “platform marketing” effort, which eventually became a 320-member team with an annual budget of $65 million. This team was focused primarily on gaining widespread ISV support for Microsoft’s new technologies before they reached the market, by involving leading ISVs in the technology design process, helping them implement Microsoft’s new technologies in their own products, and providing significant co-marketing benefits on commercial release. Until the late 1990’s, Microsoft executed this platform marketing model in a near-vacuum of competition, because other platform vendors simply did not understand how platform marketing worked. Indeed, the Department of Justice cited DRG’s “First Wave” model of platform marketing – which I co-invented – as giving Microsoft a nearly-insurmountable advantage. Now, THAT’s effective marketing!
Microsoft also created an important advantage for itself by having the Holy Trinity in-house: a platform for new features (Windows), tools to help ISVs implement those features (Visual Studio), and an application which could give any new platform feature instant critical mass (Office). The Trinity – leveraged aggressively by DRG – blessed Microsoft’s new platform features, and cursed its competitors’. Eventually, ISVs perceived that non-Microsoft features were doomed to failure. This perception became reality, ensuring the development of Windows-only niche applications, thereby locking the users of those Long Tail applications into Windows.
Contrast this with Apple, which actually cut back on its platform marketing staff in 1991, just as Windows 3.0 was gaining momentum. Michael Spindler, Apple’s CEO, derided independent Mac developers as “parasites” who were making a living at Apple’s expense. Apple started nickel-and-diming its ISVs around then, charging ISVs for each new Mac OS feature’s Software Developer’s Kit. This was criminally stupid, because Apple had the opportunity to learn from the Apple II experience – as Microsoft learned from the language tools and DOS experience – that ISVs are the key to success for any platform.
Microsoft has never forgotten that lesson – although, lately, it looks like it has. Its tools and MSDN subscriptions are ridiculously expensive, giving free open-source tools a compelling cost-advantage. Further, bad planning has significantly delayed the implementation of Microsoft’s next generation application development platform. After the Tech Wreck, Microsoft drank the offshore development Kool-Aid, placing a hold on domestic expansion (in effect) while planning to expand in India and China instead. Those plans have not worked out, and it’s clear from Microsoft’s recent King County land acquisitions and building approvals that it’s about to go on a huge building binge – and therefore, presumably, a hiring binge, too. What are all of these new employees going to work on? The “Live!” versions of Windows and Office, certainly, but I would not be at all surprised to see much of that growth be devoted to the development and marketing of Microsoft’s next generation application development platform. I expect that once Microsoft has this new platform in place, it will make developing, deploying, and maintaining powerful Web 2.0 applications a simple pleasure, allowing Microsoft to once again give ISVs the opportunity to do more, faster, and easier, than on any other platform.
Niel, in your blarticle you wrote that “a little know fact of .NET is that currently over 40 languages are supported on top of the CLR.” Therein lies a tale. I had to fight internal groups right up to Microsoft’s #3 guy, Paul Maritz (Vice President of the Platforms Strategy and Developer Group), to get an independent budget to make this happen. With that budget – and Paul’s air cover – I designed and executed “Project 7” (1998-2000), which helped the developers of the leading academic and commercial programming languages develop versions that targeted the CLR and integrated into Visual Studio. Project 7 was opposed by a surprisingly influential group of Microsofties who – stunned by the rise of Java – thought that Microsoft ought to suppress all new programming languages, rather than support them as Project 7 was doing. It is a testament to Microsoft’s collective wisdom (at the time) that this short-sighted reasoning was itself suppressed.
Project 7 delivered on all of its major objectives: (1) it forestalled Sun from suing Microsoft with claims that the CLR was just a rip-off of the JVM, by providing Microsoft with third-party expert witnesses – the participating language developers – who could credibly testify to the contrary; (2) it made Java “just another language” as far as Microsoft’s technical infrastructure was concerned; and (3) it delivered a suite of languages that proved Microsoft’s claim that the CLR (and Visual Studio) really was language-neutral (well, so long as your language didn’t need to crawl the stack, anyway, which was just too big a security risk to allow).
Since then, I left Microsoft and made what appear to be some breakthroughs in the display and control of musical information, including a new musical instrument – the Thummer™ – which I am commercializing through a new company, Thumtronics Ltd (www.thummer.com).
While on the one hand launching a new musical instrument might seem risky, I would argue that the strategic issues raised in your blarticle make it likely to achieve lasting success. As Clayton Christensen wrote in "The Innovator’s Solution" regarding Sony's early management team, “they looked for ways that they might help a larger population of less-skilled and less-affluent people to accomplish, more conveniently and at less expense, the jobs that they were already trying to get done through awkward, unsatisfactory means.” The Thummer does exactly this, and should reach the market in time for Christmas 2006.
Thanks for your excellent blarticle.
CEO, Thumtronics Ltd
The New Shape of Music™