July 2002

There is a good reason why Sun's Scott McNealy calls Windows a "hairball." Unlike the relatively stable API set of OS/2 Warp, for example, Windows has become not one standard but rather a series of ever-changing standards.

Consider the recent history of the Windows API. In 1994, if you wanted to sell monopoly software, you had to code to the Windows 3.1 specification. Fine, after 4 years of trying, people had finally figured it out. Sure, you could freeze up a PC very quickly with 32 stories (megabytes) of RAM and your resources limited by 3 little 64KByte closets on the ground floor ("system resources"). But people knew the workarounds, and non-Microsoft applications finally began to run as well as MS-Office 4.3 or whatever version they were pushing at the time.

By 1996, you had to throw out your "old" (Simon says, Everybody buy the latest developer tools!) version of your application development environment and start over with a pseudo-32bit environment that was still DOS-limited via two 64Kbyte "closets" and DOS "stubs" in the 640K memory space. And you had to learn a few new Registry tricks, too, since .INI files were now mandated to the scrap-heap by the monopolist. The painful learning curve was supposedly worth the effort, you were told, because this was at last the "holy grail" of 32-bit computing.

So by the year 2000 or so, developers had finally mastered the idiosyncrasies of Windoze9X. Sure, dozens of them had fallen by the wayside, just as the 1990 market leaders Lotus, WordPerfect, and Borland (top three sellers, all outdistancing Microsoft) had been marginalized by Microsoft's proprietary, convoluted APIs. And Microsoft had done their part by cleverly choosing winners and losers in the marketplace through selective revelation of important design parameters, high-pressure marketing deals, and simply buying up competitors and dismantling them.

Then just like clockwork, Microsoft decides it's time to pull the rug out from the developers and force them to write for XP. And just like the other times of forced changed masquerading as innovation or improvement, developers gagged and ponied up the bucks to revamp their development tools yet again. Of course, this round of unnecessary and obscure changes has had the usual predictable results. HP's Surestore backup device (a $10,000 unit!) was rendered useless under XP, according to Network Computing magazine's March 4, 2002, issue.

Meanwhile, OS/2 applications written as 32-bit native OS/2 programs five, six, or more years ago generally run fine on the latest editions of OS/2, such as eComStation or the WarpServer family of multiprocessor-ready platforms. The only real change that IBM has insisted upon, at least for general-purpose application development on OS/2, has been to push Java.

This is quite ironic, since Microsoft's skullduggery has kept Java applications from becoming a mainstream desktop standard, as was and is the purpose of the Java specification. So yet again, platforms that attempt to become new, alternative mainstream standards are thwarted by the streams of FUD and baffling, multiple API versions produced by the monopolist. As a result, desktop Java development is stymied because nobody knows for sure just what flavor of Java will be preloaded next month.

All the claims about the supposed "benefits" of having a theoretical "single standard" in the software marketplace ring hollow. There is no single standard, just the Soup du Jour and new menu with higher prices. By keeping developers on a constant treadmill of changes, the marketplace becomes filled with many different standards from the same company. No wonder the economy is filled with uncertainty. Who can honestly convince investors and creditors that they have a sure thing, when they may have to start over from scratch with the next announcement from Redmond?

Imagine how much more frustrating our modern society would be, from a technological and manufacturing standpoint, if one company "owned" the electrical outlet, and every two years changed the design! Yes, your vacuum cleaner and your toaster would need to be repurchased every two years, but so would the equipment to design and make home appliances, televisions, radios, computers, and even machine tools and manufacturing equipment. The entire manufacturing sector of the economy would be swamped with a constant turmoil of unnecessary changes and financial upheavals. This is what is going on right now in business sectors that are information-heavy, and it is making an unstable situation even worse.

Most recent revision: June 28, 2002
Copyright © 2002, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.