Joel Spolsky is getting a lot of mileage for his essay, How Microsoft Lost the API War, and it’s deserved because there are a lot of good things in there. For instance, the fact that you (mostly) don’t have an install process to run web apps (or console games for that matter) is definitely something Microsoft should think long and hard about (and I’m sure they do). I’m just fed up with installing and configuring apps, and it’s even worse when you want them available across 3 or 4 home PCs.
However, Joel’s whole argument relies on a premise that he never bothers to back up: “[the web as a platform] is Good Enough for most people and it’s certainly good enough for developers, who have voted to develop almost every significant new application as a web application.”
That’s quite a radical assertion but it isn’t reflected by facts. From digital audio, photography and video to gaming, whole software categories have grown strongly those last years, on Windows primarily but also on the Mac and consoles. Nothing more convicing than amusing demos and gizmos exist on the (HTML) web in those areas, which, by the way, happen to be the fast-expanding frontier of digital lifestyles, so that’s what matters in terms of consumer adoption and developer interest (and just look at what software people buy and use). The fact is, developers kept targeting Windows and other non-web platforms all along, and users have asked for more. Even online there’s been an explosion of desktop applications. Don’t bother telling Joel Spolsky about the many developers who create instant messaging or file sharing applications or newsreaders (many of them on Windows) and the dozens of millions of users who download and install them, he’s busy making an important point. After reading Joel’s memo, no doubt Epic Games will surely stop using DirectX (gasp, the latest version even) and commit to creating Unreal Tournament 2005 in the browser.
The platform switch challenge for Microsoft is well known and Joel may yet be proved right in the long run, but the game is far from over and his calling the score is quite premature. Remember that he said .NET was vaporware four years ago only to say now that ASP.NET is the best web dev platform. In this week’s essay, where’s the acknowledgement that at the time he got excited by a vague whitepaper but his sanguine statements were since then proved wholly incorrect? You’re right, there’s none. We’ve heard this kind of hubris about the end of the Microsoft API from the Java guys for years and look where it got them: definitely somewhere, but even more definitely, far from everywhere, and certainly in less computers than Microsoft.