Is It 1998 Again?

Set the Dial to 1998

Let’s power up the time machine and take a quick trip back to the wide world of tech around 1998. Microsoft was the Khaleesi of software and controlled a vast empire through Windows, Office, and Internet Explorer. Microsoft marched its conquering army of apps over the desktop and through the Internet with innovations like XMLHttpRequest, USB peripherals, and intelligent assistants.

All three of these innovations would go on to fashion the world we live in today with websites that look and feel like apps, devices that plug and play with our computers and phones, and helpful voices that do our bidding.

But back in 1998 these groundbreaking technologies were siloed, incompatible, and unintuitive!

  • You’d find that fancy web apps were usually tied to a specific browser (Walled Garden).
  • You’d buy a USB mouse and often find that it couldn’t wiggle your pointer around the screen (Standard Conformance).
  • You’d grow frustrated with Clippy (aka Clippit the Office assistant) because the only job it could reliably do was “Don’t show me this tip again.” (Poor UX).

And this is exactly where we are in 2018! Still siloed, incompatible, and unintuitive!

  • Do you want to run that cool app? You have to make sure you subscribe to the wall garden where it lives!
  • Do you want your toaster to talk to your doorbell? Hopefully they both conform to the same standard in the same way!
  • Do you want a super intelligent assistant who anticipates your every need, and understands the spirit, if not the meaning, of your commands? Well, you have to know exactly what to say and how to say it.

Digital Mass Extinction

The difference between 1998 and 2018 is that the stakes are higher and the world is more deeply connected. Products and platforms like Apple’s iOS, Google’s Cloud IoT Core, and Amazon’s Alexa existed in 1998–they just couldn’t do as much and they cost a lot more to build and operate.

In between 1998 and 2018 we had a digital mass extinction event—The dot com bubble burst. I was personally involved with two companies that didn’t survive the bubble, FlashPoint (digital camera operating system) and BitLocker (online database application kit). Don’t even try to find these startups in Wikipedia. But there are a few remains of each on the Internet: here and here.

Today, FlashPoint would be reincarnated as a camera-based IoT platform and BitLocker would sit somewhere between iCloud and MongoDB. Yet the core problems of silos, incompatibility, and lack of intuitive control remain. If our modern day apps, IoT, and assistants don’t tackle these problems head-on there will be another mass extinction event. This time in the cloud.

How To Avoid Busting Bubbles

Let’s take a look at the post-dot com bubble burst world for some clues on how to prevent the next extinction. After the startups of the late 1990s died-off in the catastrophe of the early 2000s the designers, developers, and entrepreneurs moved away from silos, proprietary standards, and complicated user experiences. The modern open standards, open source, and simplicity movements picked up steam. It became mission critical that your cool app could run inside any web browser, that it was built on battle tested open source, and that no user manuals were required.

Users found they could buy any computer, use any web browser, and transfer skills between hardware, software, and services. This dedication to openness and interoperability gave great results for the top and bottom lines. Tech companies competed on a level playing field and focused on who could be the most reliable and provide the highest performance and quality. Google and Netflix were born. Apple and Amazon blossomed.

Contrast that with the pre-bubble burst world of 1998 (and 2018) where tech companies competed on being first to market and building high walls around their proprietary gardens.

If we want to avoid the next tech bubble burst (around 2020?) we need Apple, Google, Amazon, and even Netflix to embrace openness and compatibility.

  • Users should be able to talk to Google, Siri, and Alexa in exactly the same way and get similar results (UX transferability).
  • Users should be able to use iOS apps on their Android phones (App compatibility).
  • Users should be able to share connected and virtual worlds such that smart speakers, smart thermostats, and augmented reality work together without tears (Universal IoT bus).

Google and Apple and Standards

At Google I/O last week the Alphabet subsidiary announced a few of examples of bubble avoidance features…

  • Flutter and Material Design improvements that that work as well on Android as they do on iOS.
  • AR “cloud anchors” that create shared virtual spaces between Android and iOS devices.

But sadly Google mostly announced improvements to its silos and proprietary IP.  I’m sure at the WWDC next month Apple announce the same sorts of incremental upgrade that only iPhone and Mac users will benefit from.

Common wisdom is that Apple’s success is build on its proprietary technology from custom chips to custom software. This is simply not true. When I was at Apple in the 1990s success (and failure) built on a foundation of standards, like CD-ROM, USB, and Unicode. Where Apple failed, in the long run, was where it went its own incompatible, inoperable, way.

In the 1998 the macOS was a walled garden failure. In 2018 macOS is a open source BSD Unix-based success. More than Windows, more than ChromeOS, and almost as much as Linux, macOS is an open, extensible, plug and play operating system compatible with most software.

The Ferris Wheel of Replatforming

Ask any tech pundit if the current tech bubble is going to burst and they will reply in all caps: “YES! ANY MOMENT NOW!!! IT’S GONNA BLOW!!!”

Maybe… or rather eventually. Every up has its down. It’s one of the laws of thermodynamics. I remember reading an magazine article in 2000 which argued that the dot com boom would never bust, that we had, through web technology, reached escape velocity. By mid-2000 we were wondering if the tech good times would ever return.

Of course the good times returned. I’m not worried about the FAANG companies surviving these bubbles. Boom and bust is how capitalism works. Creative destruction as been around as long as Shiva, Noah, and Adam Smith. However, it can be tiresome.

I want us to get off the ferris wheel of tech bubbles inflating and deflating. I want, and need, progress. I want my apps to be written once and run everywhere. I want my smart speaker of choice, Siri, to be as smart as Google and have access to all the skills that Alexa enjoys. I want to move my algorithms and data from cloud to cloud the same way I can rent any car and drive it across any road. Mostly, I don’t want to have to go back and “replatform.”

When you take an app, say a banking app or a blog, and rewrite it to work on a new or different platform we call that replatforming. It can be fun if the new platform is modern with cool bells and whistles. But we’ve been replaforming for decades now. I bet Microsoft Word has been replatformed a dozen times now. Or maybe not. Maybe Microsoft is smart, or experienced, enough to realize that just beyond the next bubble is Google’s new mobile operating system Fuchsia and Apple’s iOS 12, 13, and 14 ad infinitum…

The secret to avoid replatforming is to build on top of open standards and open source. To use adaptors and interpreters to integrate into the next Big Future Gamble (BFG). macOS is built this way. It can run on RISC or CISC processors and store data on spinning disk or solid state drives. It doesn’t care and it doesn’t know where the data is going or what type of processor is doing the processing. macOS is continuously adapted but is seldom replatformed.

To make progress, to truly move from stone, to iron, to whatever comes after silicon, we need to stop reinventing the same wheels and instead, use what we have built as building blocks upon which to solve new, richer problems, to progress.