The only constant of the computer industry is the utter failure of one company to seemingly dominate two generations of computer technology. IBM’s dominance in the Mainframe era was replaced by Digital’s Minicomputer Dominance. The PC/Workstation era was categorized by a variety of Unix vendors on the workstation side while Microsoft dominated the PC side. That era of multiple poles, including Apple as a significant player seemed to end as Windows 95 brought Microsoft to a monopoly status, and Office 95’s integration with Windows 95 simply displaced Wordperfect and Lotus 1-2-3 as the dominant desktop applications, with a combination of bundling, technical malfeasance, and marketing muscle.
Despite the drama of the Netscape vs. Microsoft “Browser Wars,” Microsoft was never able to extend their dominance of the desktop environment onto the Web. The Free Linux operating system with the Free Apache web server simply out-muscled Microsoft for the server space (in part because FreeBSD had a high performance server platform that Apache grew up on while Microsoft tried to maneuver a server designed for fighting NetWare as a file & print server into a web server), Adobe dominated the development tools, and free standards, despite attempts at manipulation by Microsoft, largely owns the Internet space. The period of time in which people were willing to develop an IE-only web was relatively short lived, and the Netscape Plugin vs. IE ActiveX controls seems like a blip in the eye compared to the modern era of dynamic, standards compliant (or relatively open Flash) environment.
The post-Web Internet, where the application replaced the web site as the area of interest has been dominated by Google in a way not seen since Microsoft’s early monopoly. Just as the DOJ complaint against IBM left an opening for Microsoft to monopolize the desktop, the investigation and suit against Microsoft created enough breathing room for the industry to open up the market to new players. In the last years of the past decade, Google’s industry dominance has resulted in every website honoring their search guidelines, applications supporting their APIs, and their embrace of the AJAX tool set legitimized it despite the technology being effectively created by a Microsoft extension years earlier.
With their new dominance, we’re seeing a newly humbled Microsoft battling an increasingly arrogant Google, creating a new dominant “evil empire” for companies to compete with. Email marketers trying to work within the guidelines at Microsoft can get a detailed report of their email system, while Google’s Gmail has a handful of vague help pages. Microsoft’s street address of “One Microsoft Way” was often mocked not as an address, but a mindset, but increasingly Microsoft is willing to work and cooperate with other companies, while Google makes changes in secret that affect the livelihood of millions.
Dominant players of one era happily live on as profitable organizations in the next one, if their management makes the right changes and is able to take their customer base to a new environment. IBM migrated to a servers company and Microsoft offers solutions in a multi-vendor world. On the other hand, AOL is a shell of the company it was when it dominated both the dial-up and instant message environment, (see my article about how AIM should be where Twitter is, but somehow didn’t extend to dominate the communication landscape), but may still find a way to bring their existing users and customers to a new market position, Wordperfect and Digital got swallowed up by other companies, and other formerly major players are no more.
Facebook currently controls a rich application environment with tremendous reach, and Apple’s iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad ecosystem is an interesting niche, but whether either can challenge Google’s dominant position over the Internet remains to be seen.