October 02, 2004

Microsoft, services, and patents

Microsoft is amassing a patent portfolio, and while they haven't used it yet, they most definitely will at some point.

I've seen concern in two areas here:

a) they will trounce on web services competitors
b) they will trounce on Linux

While it's certainly possible, I think are a lot of problems with these scenarios. This entry was adapted from a Slashdot post ... read on for more...

Firstly, we have Indigo - the next generation distributed computing platform from Microsoft. According to the blogs and what I saw at the PDC, it will be one of the richest and most thought-through approaches to distributed computing by a mainstream vendor, ever. But please note I said "distributed computing". Contrary to the hype, services orientation is not the new programming paradigm, and it is not a sucessor to OO. It certainly is the disruptive successor to OO-like distributed computing technologies such as CORBA, RMI, EJB, etc. And there is a chance that the paradigm shift will occur where everything will be distributed and nothing will be local. But distributed computing is hard, and I don't know if Indigo will truly crack that nut. In any case, it doesn't kill OO "inside" the services (F# notwithstanding).

There are two schools of thought here:
a) Microsoft wants big in the enterprise. They finally understand they need to interoperate and play well with others to do so. So they've embraced SOA , XML, etc. They will compete on being the bringing tools, performance, productivity, etc. to developers and businesses.

b) Microsoft's conducting a massive ruse and will crush BEA and IBM with patents -- especially if strategy (a) doesn't work.

We know from the Wall Street Journal article this summer that Microsoft is quietly starting to go after its own customers in dissuading them to use Linux because of their finger on the patent-trigger.

If Microsoft does start to use its patents to threaten both clients and other web services vendors, we're going to be in a very interesting time. Microsoft will have to pull off one of the biggest PR coups of all time in order to not ACCELERATE adoption of Linux and other non-Microsoft technologies. Given their recent PR debacles and marketing failures (the .NET brand-name-every-single-fucking-product-in-existence being one failure, being slow to truly react to security problems the other), I'm not confident they can pull this off.

IT departments like Microsoft because they brought costs down in the past and standardized skills. Today, they're becoming more of a liability -- they cost more, they're arrogant, and there are other standardized skills out there, like Linux. And remember -- most IT departments aren't ballsy enough to run their mission critical databases and applications on Windows. z/OS, UNIX and Linux are still key here, and I don't forsee a mass adoption of Mono over J2EE or proprietary suites in those areas.

Secondly, IBM will not take this lying down. If Microsoft has a big patent portfolio, the USPTO probably have entire warehouses dedicated to IBM patents. IBM can bring 10 lawsuits against any 1 Microsoft lawsuit. So anything MS does will have to be in line with IBM.

So the only realistic scenario I could see happening is that they outsell and outmarket BEA and IBM, or at least BEA. IBM's already doing a good job at PR-slamming BEA. BEA is the marketshare leader on UNIX and Windows, but IBM's combination of sales, createive branding tactics ("everything is WebSphere!") and mainframe share have made it seem to many that they're clobbering BEA in revenue and wins, when they're reallly not.

Since BEA is the upstart here, it's quite possible we'll wind up with two major SOA stacks -- .NET and IBM J2EE -- though BEA would probably just be acquired if it starts to falter. Sun isn't out of the game yet either, but they're certainly sidelined. Oracle still has a loyal following, and are doing really cool things with XML & the database. And how HP rises to this arena is anybody's guess. BEA has the ability to win big here, but they don't seem to have the marketing will to become as household a name as Oracle. They need new senior leadership.

But let's also recognize that technical merit doesn't win market battles. Even if Indigo is the all singing, all dancing thing that Microsoft hopes it will be, it doesn't mean people will adopt it en masse and quickly. Firstly, it's a Windows-only technology. That's a big limit to start with. Second, it's very new and rich. There's a learning curve. Third, other vendors are not sitting still. They can and will compete.

Posted by stu at October 2, 2004 12:52 PM
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