Flogging a Dead Horse
Today is apparently Bill Gates' first day away from Microsoft. As he leaves, some have suggested Microsoft's star is now in the descent, as Google's star climbs ever higher. Is this really the case, is Google destined to become the next Microsoft? When a company attains a certain dominance in the market, isn't it hard to unseat them? After all, they can afford to hire all the best people!
Cast your mind back to IBM's nervous toe-dipping when it came to the fledgling micro computer market in the Seventies, or Microsoft's initial head-in-the-sand attitude towards the internet in the Nineties — being big doesn't always make you right. Indeed the larger the organisation, the better it gets at sustaining incorrect assumptions in the face of mounting contradictory evidence. (One wonders, for example, whether a concept like transubstantiation could ever have survived in a religion with only a handful of members?)
There's safety in numbers, for sure, but only by way of passing the buck for a bad idea. Shared responsibility can often mean no responsibility at all. In the right environment bad memes can survive unchallenged, and humans seem particularly good at creating those environments. We believe because the people around us believe, not because we have given an idea careful contemplation or scrutiny. What's important is that the group has clear goals; how well those goals stand up to reality is of secondary concern. As the song says: "any dream will do!"Google prides itself on hiring only the select few, the brightest of the bright. But a youthful company with an allegedly youthful workforce, all recruited from similar stock, doesn't leave much room for diversity of outlook. Those familiar with tale of Apple Computer's first decade will know how a group of supposedly intelligent people can divorce themselves from reality when they're distracted by working on new and exciting technologies.
With so many developers recruited straight out of university, one wonders how many Google engineers really remember programming before the arrival of web? Perhaps unsurprisingly Google is wedded to the web as a platform for Rich Internet Application development, yet is there any strong evidence that this is a fruitful avenue to pursue?
Sure, Gmail is used by many, but what of Google's other web-app offerings? Docs? Spreadsheet? Does anyone, aside from the occasional curious soul, seriously use these applications? I don't think so! Yet Google continues to develop and promote the likes of GWT (Google Web Toolkit) and Gears, technologies designed to smooth over or work around the obvious shortcomings in the web platform.
If I was being cruel I might wonder whether the true genius of Google lies in finding more inventive ways to flog a dead horse! When you consider the promise of Adobe's AIR, Microsoft's Silverlight, or indeed Java's own JFX, you wonder why we aren't seeing evidence of significant investment in these technologies — or at the very least in one of them. Silverlight and JavaFX may still be raw, but AIR is mature enough to start producing applications, if only exploratory beta releases.
Perhaps behind the scenes there are indeed moves to examine these alternative RIA technologies? Maybe, as I write, the latest build of a JFX based Google Docs has just finished compiling, or an Adobe AIR Gmail has been handed off for internal testing...? But there's very little evidence of that from the itinerary of the recent Google I/O conference.
The problem with these non-web RIA platforms is they rely on a foundation of software already being installed on the user's desktop — in the case of JavaFX, for example, it's the JRE. Having to stop and install a plugin creates a hiccup in the user experience; by contrast the web browser is guaranteed to be present. So the future of non-web RIAs depends upon breaking an old chicken/egg scenario: RIAs won't start being written until runtimes are ubiquitous, and runtimes won't be ubiquitous until there's enough RIAs to drive demand for them.
Microsoft has the option of simply pushing Silverlight out like it did with IE 7, such are the perks of owning the OS which runs on 90% or so of the World's computers. While the roll out wouldn't reach every Windows user, it would cover enough to make Silverlight a lot more attractive. Can Google afford to wait for Microsoft to do this?
The only vendor of RIAs which has the clout (in terms of brand recognition and trust) with the common user is Google. If Google announced an enhanced Adobe AIR version of Gmail you can bet your bottom dollar it would generate plenty of headlines. Yet Google seems content to keep prodding the web, in the hopes it will somehow transform itself, in the best Cinderella fashion, into an effective RIA vehicle.
There's plenty of paranoia about Google around at the moment. People are whispering "the next Microsoft" every time Mountain View announces a new product. Yet I wonder if, by shackling themselves only to the web and not dabbling with these other technologies, Google hasn't committed itself to something it will later regret?
Of course Google could be right — maybe the future of the RIA is inside the browser. And even if they're wrong, there's still plenty of time to do a U-turn (although by waiting they could forfeit the opportunity to champion their preferred platform.)
For the sake of us all, I sincerely hope they are wrong, and they'll start dabbling with JavaFX or AIR sooner rather than later!