[Eric Kidd, via Scripting News] But this dream is nearly gone. It’s getting crushed between the awful power of Microsoft, and the onrushing juggernaut of open source. A 30-person company can’t compete with Microsoft. And a 30-person company will have a hard time competing with 300 open source contributors giving software away for free and making their living as in-house developers (though it can be done).
I had to comment on this, particularly the part about “A 30-person company can’t compete with Microsoft“. This statement makes sense at lazy first impression. It’s the sort of myth that keeps people from trying, and gives excuses to those who weren’t really planning to try. But the myth doesn’t stand to scrutiny. It’s ironic to note that Eric’s example ofa person who doesn’t believe the myth is a former ‘softie. Why do you think Joel doesn’t believe the myth? Do you think he has some insight that people outside the company don’t have? What do you think other former employees would say if asked “can a 30-person company compete with Microsoft?” You might be surprised.
I’ve had this explained to me at least twice by successful independent software vendors. First, Microsoft analyzes opportunities very strategically, and will happily kill a project if it doesn’t meet the bar for strategic or financial payoff. We’re not talking about crumbs here, either. There are plenty of extremely lucrative areas where Microsoft could technically compete, but won’t because of self-imposed strategic reasons. IBM had (andstill has)these same sort of self-inflicted blind spots, and ISVs know how to play them.
Second, a smaller company is more nimble. Microsoft does an admirable job of reacting to new things, but there is an inherent difference in the way that large companies react as opposed to smaller companies. Microsoft can rightly brag that we adopted RSS before most ofthe other big behemoths, but it would also be fair to say that it took a few years longer than the small fish hoped or expected. When talking about large organizations, good ideas may be identified at the individual level fairly quickly, but it’s going to take 3 years minimum for a good idea to be identified at the organizational level. That’s just the way it is. If Eric has a great idea, and is afraid that some big behemoth is going to squeeze in, he should just remember RSS.
And finally, Microsoft’s omnipotence is overstated. Even when Microsoft does decide to compete, Microsoft won’t be declaring victory with the release of V1.Victorynormally comes, if at all, after some time-consuming lessons. Intuit is still around, as are plenty of other Microsoft competitors. Do you think they regret having gotten into the business, or feel that they should have done open source? Hardly!
Of course, it all depends on what you mean by “compete”. If you mean “ship a competitor operating system”, then it’s true that a 30-person company can’t do that. But neither can Microsoft or open source — the war over operating systems was finished ten years ago. You get eitherWindows or Unix. That doesn’t prove that Microsoft or open source are any “better” at pleasing customers than a 30-person company; it just proves that operating systems aren’t the “hot” area that they used to be, and consumers are content to get their operating system from a one or two “commodity” vendors. I would also argue that “ship a competitive developer platform” is not much different from operating system. As “platform” components mature, they become less interesting and there is more pressure to standardize. Things like C#/CLI going to ECMA, SOAP to W3C, all point to the fact that the industry has largely acknowledged this trend.
This, in my opinion, is the biggest flaw with the arguments that say there is no opportunity in software today. If selling operating systems and developer platforms was the only way to make money, the critics would be right. But concentrating exclusively on operating systems and developer platforms is rather unimaginative, IMO, and not likely to bring great investment returns for anyone these days. Sure, they are strategic, but not something the typical end-user is begging for right now. There are plenty of other things that people are asking for, and lots of things that could be done to bring value to normal computer users. That’s going to be the case for the forseeable future, and as long as it’s true there is opportunity in software.