By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing
News from the Internet Front
For the want of a nail, a shoe was lost; for the want of a shoe, a horse was lost; for the want of a horse, a rider was lost; for the want of a rider, a battle was lost; for the want of a battle, a kingdom was lost, and all for the want of a horse shoe nail.
Recent news on the Internet front indicates that Microsoft may have won the battle but is losing the war. It was announced today that Sun Microsystems will acquire Cobalt Networks, a maker of Internet web server "appliances". This further cements Sun's position as a leading vendor of Internet e-commerce hardware and software. Meanwhile, Microsoft has successfully delayed implementation of the Solomon solution ("Split that baby in two, Bill") imposed by the U.S. Government's recent antitrust suit, and through enough delaying tactics will probably hold off a final resolution until the outcome no longer matters. By then, however, it may be too late for the dominions of Bill to exert the same influence on the computing world as they do today.
Just what is that Kingdom, Anyway?
While the justice department and Microsoft have been publicly battling it out in court, Sun Microsystems has been quietly building the foundation of an Internet empire. About the same time that America Online acquired Netscape, Sun announced the Sun-Netscape Alliance, a subsidiary company consisting of resources drawn from both Sun and the former Netscape which combined Sun's operating systems experience base with Netscape's Internet server expertise. The result was a set of Internet server tools which support the development of electronic commerce sites on the Internet. It was clear from the start that there was a reason that "Sun" comes first in the "Sun-Netscape" Alliance. The products which resulted from this partnership soon adopted Sun's i-planet trademark and have been heavily marketed ever since (maybe you've heard about the "dot" in "dot-com").
The irony is that the Microsoft case centered on the Internet browser as the jawbone of contention. It turns out that AOL's acquisition of Netscape has done little to strengthen or improve that browser software's position as a useful Internet utility. Microsoft, however, spent oodles of time and lawyer fees trying to assert its right to force their browser down the throats of Internet users. Dumb. The money ultimately will be made in the server business. It doesn't matter what browser is being used when people start hitting the multitude of Internet electronic commerce sites which will continue to grow. Who will be making money? Well Sun, with its ability to sell a complete hardware and software solution to anyone from a small one-person company up to a multi-billion dollar multi national is in pretty good position to rake it in.
For want of a Clue?
Microsoft is both an operating system company and an application company and probably ought to be broken up into two, since it has had an apparent record of using its dominance in the operating system arena to promote its applications at the exclusion of all others. The Department of Justice case against Microsoft may still achieve this end, however, a more natural transition may take place which will make Microsoft irrelevant in the information technology world. Just like you don't need to be an "operator" to use the telephone network these days, soon you won't need to be a computer "operator" to use the Internet. Soon you will see Internet appliances which, like a phone or FAX machine, just plug in are ready to use with a few simple controls. You will no longer need a desktop computer to use the Internet.
Since most sales of computers for use at home are purchase specifically to access the Internet, a future with cheaper and more easily used Internet appliances could dramatically change the course of information technology. If you don't need a computer, you don't need an operating system and you don't need applications (especially, if you can run them on your appliance off the Internet). This dramatically decreases the money to be made on computers and dramatically increases money to be made on Internet servers and associated technology. Microsoft, with a history of protecting its operating system and application business, was slow to embrace the Internet as a serious technology, attempted to get back into the fray with its browser battle, and still lags far behind as a serious provider of robust Internet servers.
Microsoft continues its onward march, recently releasing the "Millennium Edition" of Windows 2000. It is painfully apparent that what the Millennium Edition adds is money to the pockets of Microsoft share holders. Meanwhile, technology marches on as well, but not necessarily in the same direction as Microsoft. One can only wonder if Bill will end up wandering the battlefield in Redmond, yelling, "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse."