Thin Platforms



Thin Platforms

Courtesy of Ben Thompson, Stratechery

The Department of Justice’s 1998 complaint against Microsoft accused the company of, amongst other things, tying the Internet Explorer browser to the Windows operating system:

Internet browsers are separate products competing in a separate product market from PC operating systems, and it is efficient to supply the two products separately. Indeed, Microsoft itself has consistently offered, promoted, and distributed its Internet browser as a stand-alone product separate from, and not as a component of, Windows, and intends to continue to do so after the release of Windows 98…

Microsoft’s tying of its Internet browser to its monopoly operating system reduces the ability of customers to choose among competing browser products because it forces OEMs and other purchasers to license or acquire the tied combination whether they want Microsoft’s Internet browser or not. Microsoft’s tying — which it can accomplish because of its monopoly power in Windows — impairs the ability of its browser rivals to compete to have their browsers preinstalled by OEMs on new PCs and thus substantially forecloses those rivals from an important channel of browser distribution.

In retrospect, the complaint feels quaint for three reasons:

First, Microsoft won the browser wars, and it didn’t matter; after peaking at 95% market share in 2004, Internet Explorer was first challenged by Firefox, which peaked at 32% market share in 2010, and then surpassed by Chrome in 2012:

The reasons ended up being both a condemnation and an endorsement of the libertarian defense of Microsoft’s actions, depending on your timeframe: sure, the company leveraged its operating system dominance to gain browser market share, but the company also made a great browser (I personally switched with the release of version 4). And then, with Version 6 and its position seemingly secured, the company just stopped development; that is what opened the door to first Firefox and then Chrome, both of which were downloaded and installed by end users looking for something better. The market worked, eventually.

Of course, the reason the market could work is that Windows was an open platform: sure, Microsoft controlled (and allegedly abused) what could be preinstalled on a new computer, but once said computer was in a user’s hands they could install whatever they wanted to, including alternative browsers. That gets to the second reason why the complaint feels quaint: today having a browser pre-installed is de rigueur for operating systems, and Apple’s iOS goes much further than simply pre-installing Safari: all alternative browsers must use Apple’s built-in rendering engine, which means they can only compete on user interface features, not fundamental functionality.**

**Apple argues, not without merit, that this is for security reasons; critics argue, with considerable merit, that this restricts innovation on iOS and meaningful competition with the App Store.

The third reason has to do with Microsoft itself.

Thick and Thin

As I noted last week in an Update, one of the overarching themes of CEO Satya Nadella’s Build developer conference keynote was the seemingly eternal tech debate about thin versus thick clients (to dramatically simplify — and run the risk of starting of a flame war — thin clients are terminals for a centralized computer, while thick clients are computers in their own right, that sync):

The biggest takeaway from this keynote is that for developers, at least the ones that Microsoft is courting, the thin client model has won — although the truth, as is so often the case with tech holy wars, has ended up somewhere in the middle. Here is the key distinction: there is and will continue to be a lot of work that happens locally; all of the assumptions around that work, though, will be as if the work is being done on the server. For example:

  • GitHub Codespaces is an explicitly online environment that you can temporarily use locally.
  • Azure Arc provides the the Azure control plane for an on-premises development environment.
  • The Azure Container Apps service and Azure Kubernetes Service enable developers to write locally in the same environment they deploy to the cloud.

Moreover, several other of the announcements were about patching up limitations in cloud development relative to local: Microsoft Dev Box, for example, enables the deployment of cloud-based VM’s that mimic a local development environment for things like app development; Microsoft Cloud PC (which was previously announced) does the same thing for client applications.

What makes this shift so striking is that it is being articulated by Microsoft; after all, Windows (along with Intel) was the dominant winner of the thick client era. Yes, Windows Server was an integral part of Microsoft’s enterprise dominance, but the foundation of the company’s strategy — as evidenced by the tactics used in the fight against Netscape — was the fact that Windows was the operating system on the devices people used. That, by extension, was precisely why mobile was so disruptive to the company: suddenly Windows was only on some of the devices people used; iOS and Android were on a whole bunch of them as well.

I’ve spent many articles writing about how Satya Nadella weaned Microsoft off of its Windows-centric strategy; the pertinent point in terms of this Article comes from Teams OS and the Slack Social Network

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