Adapting to the market's message

This is about choice.

- Neo, to The Architect, in The Matrix Reloaded

In the middle of 1995, when the Netscape browser and Linux were both at versions 1.x, Newt Gingrich told Esther Dyson, "The key to a monopoly is to get in the middle of an intersection and charge rent." That line inspired "A Bulldozer Through the Intersection", my 1996 interview with Craig Burton on the occasion of Netscape's acquisition of Tim House and the LDAP development team from the University of Michigan. Here's how Craig described the effect LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) would have on Microsoft's plans to control the Internet:

Microsoft built its entire services strategy on what it thought was a titanium vise. One side was an object-oriented file system called OSS, which collapsed the directory into the file system. This was Cairo. The other side was a distributed application development framework called OLE, which they owned lock, stock and barrel. They would squeeze those together and the Netscapes of the world would squoosh like jello.

But the Internet blew the jaws of that vise apart. When Microsoft tightened the jaws of that vice, they bent wide open. The world has shifted, and Microsoft is not going to dominate it, at least not by giving people no choice but to use Microsoft. All they can do is what they've shown they can do extremely well: retool for the new reality. They have no choice but to embrace the LDAP business and extend into it. Just like they did with Java.

Ah yes: Java.

The problem with Java was that it was embraceable but not extendable. At least not the way Microsoft tends to extend things. Java was (and still is) a cross-platform development and runtime environment, well-suited to the growing Internet ecosystem; but also owned and controlled by Sun Microsystems. When Microsoft extended Java in ways that only worked on Windows, Sun sued. That was in 1997. There was a settlement of some sort in January 2001, but Sun sued Microsoft on antitrust grounds in 2002. Then, finally, in April of this year, the two companies buried their hatchets as Microsoft agreed to pay Sun a total of $1.95 billion dollars. The agreement covered technical collaboration as well as legal issues.

This wasn't your usual settlement worked out between lawyers. Talks began last summer over golf between Sun's Scott McNealy and Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, who have been friends and rivals since high school. They expanded to involve many meetings and phone calls, some involving Bill Gates himself. The talks expanded beyond antitrust issues to include patents, which were also covered by the settlement

This also wasn't your usual "Barney agreement" over technology -- one of those "I love you, you love me" statements backed by no substantive cause for movement by either party. At the end of negotiations, the two companies agreed to provide access to each other's server technologies, including operating system, email and database software. That item counted for $350 million of the $1.95 billion, but also allows Sun to pay Microsoft for incorporating the latter's technologies. Sun will license communications protocols for Windows, under terms of the Justice Department consent decree. Microsoft agreed to play nice with Java, while continuing to support its rogue implementation. And, most significantly, the two companies committed to make Java and Microsoft's .Net work together.

After news broke on April 5, rivers of ink and oceans of pixels were spilled over what the agreement really meant, and how "collaboration" might work between two companies which, until the day before, seemed ready to spill each other's blood at any cost. Who were the "winners and losers" here? Was Sun still headed for oblivion? (The company also announced plans to lay off 3,300 people in the same time frame.) Clearly both companies despised IBM and considered Linux a threat -- even though Sun had already embraced Linux in various ways. What were the new teams and players? Who were the new warring factions? What were the weapons, the battlefields?

It's too easy to describe these kinds of things with the boxes of words provided by sports and war metaphors. A better metaphorical system is environmental. By looking at computing as a world rather than as a battlefield or a sports arena, we can see operating systems and development enviornoments as overlapping ecosystems with larger contexts.

For a little guidance on this, listen to John McPhee in Rising From the Plains, explaining where most of our iron and steel came from:

Although life had begun in the form of anaerobic bacteria early in the Archean Eon, photosynthetic bacteria did not appear until the middle Archean and were not abundant until the start of the Proterozoic. The bacteria emitted oxygen. The atmosphere changed. The oceans changed. The oceans had been rich in dissolved ferrous iron, in large part put into the seas by extruding lavas of two billion years. Now with the added oxygen the iron became ferric, insoluble, and dense. Precipitating out, it sank to the bottom as ferric sludge, where it joined the lime muds and silica muds and other seafloor sediments to form, worldwide, the banded-iron formations that were destined to become rivets, motorcars and cannons. The is was the iron of the Mesabi Range, the Australian iron of the Hammerslee Basin, the iron of Michigan, Wisconsin, Brazil. More than ninety percent of the iron ever mined in the world has come from Precambrian banded-iron formations. Their ages date broadly from twenty-five hundred to two thousand million years before the present. The transition that produced them -- from a reducing to an oxidizing atmosphere and the associated radical change in the chemistry of the oceans -- would be unique. It would never repeat itself. The earth would not go through that experience twice.

The world of computing has changed, profoundly, in the last nine years. The new world we live in now has base conditions that were absent when Sun and Microsoft were forming in the late 70s, and remained absent until the late 90s.. These new conditions are both global and personal in scope and meaning, because they involve the Internet on one hand and personal computing on the other.

Today's world primarily consists of the Net itself. It has grown to consume and subsume the phone system, computer networks and everything else that serves to connect people and devices. The lithification of the Net is analagous to the formation of banded iron from the Archaeon seas. And it has been precipitated by countless individuals as well as the large companies that issue statements and make headlines.

The Net grew because it embodies the principles of NEA: Nobody owns it, Everybody can use it and Anybody can improve it. Linux and the whole LAMP suite (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP, Perl, Python, etc.) have been symbiotes in the Net's ecosystem from their beginnings, and have contributed immeasurably to the Net's growth, and to its ability to support countless activities. Like it or not, Linux is part of the solution both Sun and Microsoft must embrace as they try to figure out what the'll do together.

Sun has always understood networking deeply. This was manifest not only in slogans like "the network is the computer," but also in Sun's early advocacy of the Net and the Web. (I learned about both for the first time from John Gage of Sun.)

Microsoft has always understood personal computing just as deeply. No company has done more to make computing personal -- or continues to do more today -- than Microsoft.

It makes sense to see both companies come together at this point in time; but not because of anything either company happens to be doing right now. Instead, it makes sense because the Net is growing thicker, and more solid. Its infrastructure includes more and more useful and ubiquitous protocols and other standards originating in the resourceful work of allied individuals, rather than in any company's corporate agenda. For example, while Microsoft makes a big deal about Web services in its propaganda about. .Net, RSS and other systems for deploying practical Web services have been developed and deployed by other companies large and small -- and by countless individuals whose leadership comes from themselves and each other. The Web services market today is a conversation no company can dominate.

The same thing is happening even inside corporate development processes. While Sun has yet to respond positively to calls by IBM and Eric S. Raymond (in separate open letters) to open source Java, the overall evolution of Java is in an open direction that cannot be reversed. The same goes not only for .Net, but for the development of Longhorn, its next major operating system The most interesting and engaged voices coming from Microsoft these days are not those of its leaders, but of its rank & file technologists. Robert Scoble, whose weblog is read by thousands every day, is the voice of a Longhorn evangelist who clearly does his best to engage the market in constructive conversation. Robert's boss, Lenn Pryor, who describes himself in one of his weblogs as "a punk ass kid from D.C.", put together a site called Channel 9 that's based on the principles of The Cluetrain Manifesto, and the teachings of a certain Linux Journal senior editor.

The real story about the Sun-Microsoft deal was also told by CEOs of both companies at the time of the announcement, although it got scant attention in the sports and war coverage that followed. One exception was The Wall Street Journal, which put it this way:

...the economic pressures of the past few years have slowed the spigot of corporate spending on technology, prompting stiffer competition among vendors and giving corporate buyers leverage to insist that warring suppliers make their products work together. "The customer is in charge," Mr. McNealy says simply in explaining his rapprochement with Microsoft.

That realization, a truism in more-mature industries, turned out to be the most powerful force in persuading the companies to make peace.

The market, comprised of countless individuals who had grown tired of closed systems that wouldn't interoperate, has only been more and more empowered by the Network, by Linux, and by other creations that were primarily the results of Demand rather than Supply. The message was simple: "Battling environments cannot survive in a world where any and all of us can solve our own problems. Our biggest problems for many years have been vendor "solutions" that don't interoperate and that create dependencies customers don't want. If you don't help solve those problems, we'll keep solving them for ourselves. We all have bulldozers now, and we know how to use them."