Don’t beat them, make them irrelevant

Back in the early 2000s, I was a given an expert report that outlined the future of computing. Regarding software, the report foresaw the absolute and uncontested dominance of Microsoft operating systems.

Back then Apple was basically dead. Linux was a niche player on everything but servers (and it still is). Sun Microsystems was struggling (it is now dead). Palm was selling mobile handhelds (nobody remembers them). Oracle and Sun were touting “thin clients” to replace the PC, but nobody was buying.

I remember being slightly depressed. I like Microsoft, I like Bill Gates, but I think that software is too important to be ruled by one man.

Microsoft was covering all the bases. It had tablets. It had mobile handhelds. It had PCs. It had Office. Microsoft had economies of scale, it had a lock-in effect. In effect, it was unbeatable.

But the prediction favoring Microsoft was still fundamentally wrong. Tablets alone (either iOS or Android) sell as much as PCs. Apple’s iOS (tablets and iPhone) outsells PCs. Android mobile devices outsell PCs many-to-one.

Apple, the same company that was basically dead in the early 2000s, has been worth more than Wintel (Microsoft and Intel) for years now.

As far as I can tell, in the early 2000s, no expert foresaw any of this.

Yet Microsoft did not lose its dominance because it was particularly foolish and incompetent… it also did not lose to competitors that set out to destroy it. When Apple launched the iPhone, they were not trying to disrupt the Wintel fortress. They were bundling an MP3 player with a phone.

Apple simply made Microsoft’s monopoly less relevant. Sure, you can still send Word documents, but if they don’t open on an iPhone, they are broken.

This is a common pattern. When faced with very difficult challenges, too many people go on desperate offensives.

Yet openly attacking a superior enemy on its own turf is the last thing you want to do. It is irrational.

Don’t beat them, make them less relevant.

8 thoughts on “Don’t beat them, make them irrelevant”

  1. Linux is not a niche player in everything but servers, but yes, Linux owns the server market in overwhelming fashion.

    Linux owns more than half the phone mobile market with Android (a version of linux).

    Linux owns the educational computer market in the USA and elsewhere, with ChromeOS (a version of Linux).

    Linux owns the IoT space hands down.

    Linux owns most current embedded development.

    So is this a niche player? Linux owns every niche besides the desktop. Perhaps desktop is a niche?

    1. (I should disclose that I am very favorable to Linux.)

      Linux is not a niche player in everything but servers, but yes, Linux owns the server market in overwhelming fashion.

      Linux is used by about a third of all websites…

      http://w3techs.com/technologies/details/os-linux/all/all

      The Linux kernel is used by Android and Chrome OS, but that’s not exactly the same as what was meant by Linux in the early 2000s.

      I mean… ultimately, many of the modern web browsers are derived from Konqueror, the early KDE web browser… but we don’t say that Konqueror won the browser war.

      So is this a niche player? Linux owns every niche besides the desktop. Perhaps desktop is a niche?

      I think that most people who have Android phones don’t consider themselves Linux users. And we do not commonly refer to Android as “Linux”.

      To this day, it is hard to order a Linux box. I order Linux servers from Dell every year, and we usually end up installing Linux ourselves.

  2. As for seeing this coming – in the 90s I foresaw the eventual success of open source. I predicted it a little too early, but I did foresee the collapse of Microsoft’s monopoly due to the inroads of open source. First it was servers, then Apple used BSD as the basis of their new OS (BSD is open source).

    I stated early on that MS would be better off as an OS company and an applications company – so the applications company could write apps for MacOS and Linux as well as windows – extending MS reach, and the OS company could more readily muck around in new spaces such as mobile and embedded.

    That didn’t happen, and the rest is history.

    1. As for seeing this coming – in the 90s I foresaw the eventual success of open source. I predicted it a little too early, but I did foresee the collapse of Microsoft’s monopoly due to the inroads of open source. First it was servers, then Apple used BSD as the basis of their new OS (BSD is open source).

      It is a bit of a mixed story though, isn’t it?

      Mac OS X and iOS are not exactly open source. Nor is Android or Chrome OS. And how many apps in the various App stores are open source?

      In retrospect, I think it is less of an “open source” vs. Microsoft story… and more of a “PC” vs. “non-PC” story. PCs are losing ground… and that’s what threatening Microsoft.

      I stated early on that MS would be better off as an OS company and an applications company – so the applications company could write apps for MacOS and Linux as well as windows – extending MS reach, and the OS company could more readily muck around in new spaces such as mobile and embedded. That didn’t happen, and the rest is history.

      The application market for MacOS and Linux is tiny, to this day.

  3. Well, at least Linus Torvalds seems to be happy with Android’s dominance and the fact that the same kernel powers phones to supercomputers.

    >> When Apple launched the iPhone, they were not trying to disrupt the Wintel fortress

    Paul Graham also wrote about something similar in his essay “What Microsoft Is This The Altair Basic Of”. Bill Gates didn’t start out writing an operating system that was going to dominate the market. He was writing a Basic interpreter for the Altair.
    http://paulgraham.com/altair.html

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