My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Why Microsoft-only development is foolish business logic

Any company that focuses on Microsoft-only platforms may gain access to the vast majority of Internet users but in doing so, they also secure Microsoft hegemony.

I’m always stunned when companies who compete with Microsoft support only their platforms, only their protocols. How many companies develop only for MS operating systems, only for IE, only for Outlook? The logic is often practical: the primary target group uses MS and it costs too much to develop on multiple platforms. This should make practical economic sense, right? Wrong.

Companies keep competing on a product-by-product basis, forgetting that they need to be competing on a paradigm level. And forgetting that they need to be competing collectively, not individually. By creating a product that only works on Microsoft, you solidify Microsoft more than you compete with them. You may be competing on a product level, but in the long run, you’ve done Microsoft more good than harm and you’ve just made your competition more difficult. You’ve given people another reason to stay on Microsoft. Why? How can this possibly be good business logic?

The majority of the world _is_ using Microsoft-only. Think about everything that is pre-installed: browsers, calendar, IM, text editor, music player, … It takes a lot of effort to switch any one of those applications. And yet, when IE stopped development, people started to do so. Started. It can happen, but it’s a huge uphill battle. Anyone who has taken the scary jump to switch to Firefox or OSX should be rewarded by being loved and cherished by all in competition with Microsoft, not punished.

People always ask how Microsoft survives when their products are not nearly as good as their competitors. Most people argue monopoly, but while that plays a role, i’d argue that it’s mostly because the competitors are securing Microsoft’s position as leader, reinforcing their power within the tech industry, and giving them the ability to dictate the standards. They do so actively whenever they only support Microsoft, whenever they make it harder for users to switch.

At FOO, i was stunned to see quite a few PCs – i’m used to a Mac-only influencer crowd (although Macs still dominated). When i mocked the PC owners, i received a consistent chorus – i used to use Macs only but then i started working for XYZ big company and they don’t support Macs – i need to use Outlook, i need to use IE, VPN doesn’t work on Macs, … What killed me was the number of people who work for Yahoo and Google who said this. ::smacking forehead:: You have to be kidding me!

This week, Google launched two Windows-only properties to compete with Microsoft. Not only are they ignoring a key early adopter/influencer crowd, but they’re helping discourage mainstream users from trying non-Microsoft products. Why? And why not work together with other companies who are competing with Microsoft?

I still believe that supporting influencers is necessary, but i’m now convinced that you also need to support anyone who has taken the initiative to switch away from your competition. Furthermore, you don’t have the right to espouse open standards if you continue to only build on top of only one closed one. You need to give people choice beyond just the application at hand. Openness isn’t simply about open protocols concerning one application, but about open choice to mix and match layers through and through.

Please, if you’re building an application that is browser/OS/platform-specific, please please please think about this. Think about how your limited development focus secures hegemony of other layers that will continue to haunt your layer.

Note: this post is heavily influenced by a discussion with Ryan Shaw

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16 comments to Why Microsoft-only development is foolish business logic

  • danah, you write that you were “stunned to see quite a few PCs” and then make clear after the fact that you mean Windows PCs. In the spirit of not assuming that everyone uses Microsoft, how about writing “Windows PC” explicitly when you mean “Windows PC”?

    I’ve been using a PC desktop for nearly ten years (although I had some great times with MacOS before I became more concerned about free software), but I swore off Windows by 1996. So I’m always sad to see people write “PC” when they mean “Windows”; to me, it’s akin to the very problem you’re complaining about, although clearly with much less severe consequences.

    Did you see Tim Berners-Lee’s great letter to the Copyright Office about their MSIE-only web site inquiry?

  • apophenia round-up: posts that slipped through

    I’ve been doing a terrible job at posting to M2M because i’m never quite sure what fraction of my posts belong here and what tone is appropriate. I’ve been actively posting to my personal blog apophenia and looking back, i…

  • Competitors Helping Microsoft

    Danah has an excellent post about MS competitors who then turn around and develop their products for Windows only. Definitely an interesting read….

  • joeydag

    “How can this possibly be good business logic?”
    Danah, why do you even bring up business logic? Who knows from business logic? Certainly not the software development managers!

  • Jonathan Tregear

    This is an incredibly arrogant argument that you’re making. It’s arrogant because it almost tautologically defines influencers as non-Windows users. Can you even define what an influencer is? I don’t think I can. Even if you could define influencer in some non-tautological way, do you have any evidence of any kind other than anecdotal that non-Windows users are even a majority of this general influencer class let alone constitute the entire influencer class. Come on your an academic, show us some evidence taken from a general population.

    I was a little more ok with all of this in your 10/08/04 post when it was early adopters, radicals, geeks, and freaks of social networking tools. But influencers, the entire universe of influencers are using Macs? I suspect you’re really driving towards an influencer definition that leans heavily on academicians. That, to me, is a slippery slope that leads back to the well-earned reputation that academics have for arrogance. The classic “we know what’s best for you, if you would only use what we tell you to use”.

  • aaronb

    danah, please explain to me how your apple powerbook running apple mac os/x is less supporting of hegemony than my ibm thinkpad running three or four concurrent operating systems and at least as many development environments.

    if you want to argue the superiority of the os/x environment for graphics work, design appeal, or ‘just-works’ use is good, then i’m with you. but trying to claim that buying bmw is more subversive than buying GM is more than a little specious.

  • All of your arguments amount to nothing because they drift high above the bottom line. Very few companies develop for Mac because it’s proven to be bad business, period. This isn’t 1996. Software developers venturing into the Mac world have been burned far too many times, far too publicly.

    Mac people lost the war for the market a decade ago. It wasn’t even close. You guys really must get over it. You’ve got 3 games, 2 graphics editors and a video editor and that’s all you’re going to get. Now please leave us Windows people alone. We’re cranky because our machines keep crashing and getting viruses. ;)

  • Google isn’t some small developer who might get burned by developing for the mac. It wouldn’t take much of the extra four billion they’ll soon have to hire enough programmers to offer
    Earth, Desktop, Talk, and whatever is to come on macs and linux.

    It is frankly stupid that the Google Video Viewer doesn’t work on a mac. And short

    And contrast

    Google Desktop isn’t currently available for Mac OS. Right now we’re putting all of our energy into making Google Desktop the best program we can. We realize that a lot of our users would like us to offer a Mac version, and we may consider this option in the future.

    with

    Can you tell me more about Google Talk’s commitment to open standards and user choice?

    We believe that you should have a choice in how you communicate with your friends, that you shouldn’t have to use one service because that’s where you keep your contacts and other information. We launched free auto-forwarding and POP access for Gmail so our users could take their messages with them and use any service they want, and we’re committed to upholding this idea of user choice for Google Talk as well.

    Today, with instant communications, you can’t talk to your contacts or buddies in one service while using another service. We hope to change that. We want to work with other willing service providers to enable their users to communicate directly with Google Talk users. And while we hope many people will use and like the Google Talk client, we’re committed to making it as easy as possible for you to communicate with your friends using the client that you want–even if it doesn’t happen to be ours. That’s why we’re also supporting open standards.

  • Filtered Search and Community searches

    So this week we worked on the plans to support the move from the standard MSCOM search interface to the…

  • Seth – sorry! Yes, i saw PCs and was surprised to learn most were running Windows (it required asking to get to that because the visual was just PCs). I didn’t really see Windows PCs but you’re right that i’m not being clear.

    Jonathan – in recent years, i’ve gone to many events with the folks who are building the tools, advising the development and otherwise influencing the creation of Web2.0. More and more, they have been using non-Windows which was initially a surprise to me. I was surprised to see people switch back. There are different kinds of influencer crowds. I’m talking about the geek kind here.

    aaronb – i’m not claiming that a Mac is more subversive but that it is a direct competitor to Microsoft, unfortunately far more than your concurrent OS machine. I would argue that yours is more resistant to hegemony.

    Bill – it’s not just about Mac. It’s about Firefox. It’s about non-MS standards. It’s about supposedly being “open” and developing for one standard, one protocol and helping bury the same properties that Microsoft has been burying for years. It’s a question of alignment and who is actually competing with who. It’s not about a market war but about who is going to set the standards for everything that comes out on the web and on the machines themselves.

  • Wil Shipley of Delicious Monster fame gave a fantastic talk on why developing software for the Mac makes sense. I didn’t get to see it myself, but he has put the slides and a podcast of his talk online.

    A couple of slides on why developing windows software doesn’t make sense for small developers:

    Windows users only ever use three apps
    Word, IE (for e-mail), and iTunes
    * Are you writing those apps?

  • Mike

    Hmm, very interesting, this page is almost unusable in Firefox because there’s no scrollbar, so the page just kind of “ends” unless you guess that you need to scroll down.

    The post works wonderfully, however, in Internet Explorer.

    That simple fact completely destroys all credibility for this post.

  • Terry Maraccini

    Some good points here, but there is a need to dig further. Shipley is right in that in the Windows space there is a tendency to create many “me too” products in hopes of fracturing a Windows share of a given product sector.

    As far as developers getting publicly burned by developing for Mac OS, I’s like to see it. Microsoft’s Mac BU is extremely profitable. Intuit’ re-entry into the market only came after others showed profitability in the accounting sector. Ultimately, the competitive nature of software development has been comodditized to the point of limited resources fighting over a fragmented market. Killer apps aren’t dreamed up. They’re deemed compelling enough by end users to have whole industries sprout up in support of their use. iTunes may be the best app for Windows out there.

  • Another Mike

    “Hmm, very interesting, this page is almost unusable in Firefox because there’s no scrollbar, so the page just kind of “ends” unless you guess that you need to scroll down.”

    Huh? Works fine in Firefox for me. Must be your computer that is messed up. What are you running, Windows?

    “Software developers venturing into the Mac world have been burned far too many times, far too publicly.”

    ?!?!? How could Google get “burned” by making a Mac or Linux version of any of their software?? It’s all free! Even in the worst case scenario, they would still lose less money on the Mac or Linux version than on the Windows version, because the original version is always going to cost more to develop than the ported version.

  • I’m happy to fix any rendering problems that people are having but i do not see them on Firefox. Please send me screenshots and additional information.

  • Michael Chui

    It works fine in Firefox about 90% of the time, and the one time it didn’t, I reloaded (Ctrl+F5) and it worked fine again. I’m guessing it’s a problem with Firefox’s interpretation of CSS… but I’m not knowledgeable enough to know what. Or how to reproduce it.

    I’m running Windows XP Pro, Firefox. =P

    Actually, being an undergrad looking at prospective industry jobs and internships, I’m utterly shocked by the listed requirements ennumerating a host of MS products. Apparently, I’m supposed to know how to use Outlook, Word, and Access, and usually Excel. It’s not that I don’t, or couldn’t figure it out, but I’ve been using Thunderbird, Firefox, OpenOffice, and MySQL for so long… because they’re FREE… that this just bewilders me.

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