Understanding Microsoft

Part 83. The Drawbridge

In the middle ages of Europe, there was a common form of military/political structure built to control access to the power and authority of a local chieftain or a government. This structure centered on a castle, which was a huge compound that surrounded a set of important buildings with high stone walls and fortifications. In order to enter or leave this castle, a special kind of door called a drawbridge was often used. A drawbridge consisted of a long, heavy door made of wood or metal, mounted such that it opened downwards to form a flat plank instead of swinging sideways. Often the drawbridge was used both as a door as well as a bridge over a moat (a small body of water surrounding the castle) which made unauthorized entry extremely difficult. Attacking a drawbridge was difficult not just because of the fortifications and missiles used to thwart the attacks of outsiders, but because the base of the closed drawbridge was inaccessible due to the surrounding water.

The drawbridge concept was useful not only to keep out invaders, but also to imprison people within as well. Once the drawbridge was closed (in the upward position), leaving the castle would be nearly as difficult as entering from outside. A prince or a wealthy baron could kidnap or entice someone into their castle and then prevent them from leaving. There was always a chance that someone could actually escape, of course, but the high risk of drowning and dangers from beasts lurking in the moat made escape a last-resort option. By skillful use of the drawbridge, access to the halls of power could be maintained with relative ease.

Microsoft has a drawbridge philosophy as well. When a new technology appears on the horizon, Microsoft will do their best to appear open, inviting, and cooperative. They will occasionally go so far as to talk about "openness" and "standards" and may even license pieces of their source code in order to entice software developers and corporate decisionmakers into accepting the Microsoft platform as their programming environment of choice. The drawbridge is now open, making entry into the Microsoft compound quite easy. The lure of quick profits, easy development processes, and short time-to-market seems so inviting!

However, once a large market share has been achieved, Microsoft will release a new version of its product -- either the application or browser involved with a particular market, or else the operating system platform itself -- that suddenly changes its entire philosophy. Instead of being open to published standards and multiple platforms, Microsoft will now be closed, proprietary, and harsh in its dealings with others. The Microsoft minions will crow about the need for "optimized solutions" and "protecting intellectual property investments" and the importance of "not confusing the customer" as well as "not settling for the lowest common denominator among many platforms." The drawbridge is now closed, and the costs of leaving the Microsoft compound are suddenly high.

In fact, you can tell how well Microsoft is doing in a particular market segment by how cross-platform their product line is in that particular area. Microsoft will write browsers for Mac, Windows, and Unix systems, but targets MS-Office specifically at the Windows and Mac platforms only -- fearing that desktop legitimization of Unix would doom Microsoft platforms. The drawbridge is still down for browsers, because Netscape is still an option for most people. However, the drawbridge is now firmly closed for Office users, who will not be seeing any new platforms with MS-Office native development. The only exception to this rule is for a realistic threat to the MS power base, such as Linux. Microsoft will re-open the Office drawbridge to Linux if necessary, and then close it once again after driving the other Linux-based office suites into bankruptcy.

Most recent revision: August 12,1999
Copyright © 1999, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.

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