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Another Microsoft epiphany?

Late to the Internet dance, Microsoft eventually found a way to dominate Internet technology. Will it repeat this process with security and stability?

In 1994, Bill Gates made a statement that brought him almost universal criticism. To paraphrase, he said the Internet would never amount to more than a playground for academics. Keep in mind that Microsoft had done almost no development on Internet-related products at that point. But something changed between Gates’s infamous statement and his book “The Road Ahead,” which was published shortly after the release of Windows 95 and re-released in 1996. In the second release, he claimed the Internet was the next big thing in technology and vowed to dominate Internet technology in the near future.

Partly because Microsoft was so far behind, it cut corners on Internet technology like never before. Sure, it had always played hardball with licensing Windows and with integrating Office into Windows. But it had never been as aggressive as it was with Internet Explorer and Java. Starting in 1996 and underscored by the 1998 antitrust suit, Microsoft began a full-scale assault on the Internet technology market that eventually led to it extending its desktop monopoly to parts of the Internet.

Why the history lesson? Well, history is repeating itself. For a long time, Microsoft downplayed the importance of security and stability in its products, especially those that were hastily built as part of Microsoft’s plan to dominate Internet tech. Its culture has always maintained that development follows marketing. That is, marketers dream up features that would make the product easier to sell, and the developers are told to add those features. From the marketer’s perspective, security and stability are not features. They are unlike the bells and whistles that get added to make products so easy to use that even the marketers themselves can use them. In response to criticism from its own clients that the products are insecure and unstable, Microsoft’s public response has typically been defensive.

By now, most of you are aware of a memo from Gates to his employees that attempts to shift development priorities within Microsoft from features to security and stability. As an excellent story on our site today (Monday) reports, this memo touched off a raging debate within the industry. Is this just marketing fluff? Or will the memo be the start of a sea change at the company? Some are comparing this directive to the defining moment in 1995 when Gates wrote a similar memo about the need to put most of the company’s efforts towards Internet technology.

My own view is, when Gates makes a public admission like this, the company reacts–quickly. It took the company two years from having almost no Internet technology to having solid (if not secure) technology in almost every category related to Internet development and use (except Java). This memo wasn’t written in a vacuum. Some of Microsoft’s best clients are switching to other platforms because of the costs of securing and supporting Microsoft products. It will take a sea change like the one in 1995 to get many of these clients back.

Microsoft will find out the hard way that you can’t cut corners when it comes to stability and security. For that reason, this is not like 1995. It will take more than two years to get Microsoft’s Internet-related products up to the security and stability standards of the rest of the industry. But back in ’95, I predicted that Microsoft would never amount to anything on the Internet because they were too late to the game. Obviously, I was wrong then, and I hope I’m wrong again. I hope Microsoft is successful, for the sake of countless developers and users whose companies are committed to Microsoft technology–and for the sake of the industry itself.

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and ComputerUser.com.

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