Anybody working in the software business knows beyond doubt that Microsoft is hurting innovation. Almost any interesting software business idea you can think of that involves the desktop will eventually put you in direct competition against Microsoft. And everybody knows that, with Microsoft’s seriousnes about taking competitors out of the market, coupled with their bottomless coffers and aggressive (illegal?) business tactics, this means either get acquired by Microsoft (aka “line up” in the quote below) or your air supply cut off like Netscape’s (aka “smashed”).
It’s incredible that there can be any doubt that Microsoft is hindering innovation. Anyone who’s been to a place where innovation happens knows that innovation does not (only) occur inside Microsoft or any other big companies. But this is an area where the misunderstandings are widespread.
The personal computer wasn’t invented by the computer industry. In fact, it took IBM, the owner of the computer market, six years after the first personal computer, the Altair, to develop their personal computer. The Altair was developed by a tiny and unsuccessful calculator company, not by a large computer company. The web wasn’t developed by a software company, but by a physicist. SOAP wasn’t invented by Microsoft or IBM, but was based on XML-RPC from Dave Winer’s tiny company Userland.
That innovation is done by individuals and not by big companies is one thing. The other aspect is that the real innovation is in how things are being used, something that requires innovation by the users, at the edges of the system. The telephone was never intended for letting people chit-chat across a distance, but that’s how it turned out to be most useful. The internet wasn’t designed for the web, and the web wasn’t designed for commerce like Amazon or communities like Yahoo! Groups, but that’s how it turned out to be useful.
These shifts in how the technology is being used from something useless dreamt up by some company envisioning a market, to something useful thought of by the users or someone close to the users, could only happen because the technology was left relatively open. WAP is an example of another useless new technology, but because it remains closed, people have no way of going out and finding new uses for the technology, hence it’ll remain useless.
Innovation really happens in the interplay between individuals wherever they are, just like it’s always happened in academia. This has been the cornerstone of scientific progress for centuries, but somehow this lesson seems to be forgotten in the media. It’s time we change that.