Paul Graham says Microsoft is dead. Why he’s wrong.

I ran across this story with the provocative title while catching up with my Google Reader subscriptions. So after reading that uninformed post (one thing Mr. Chartier, John C. Dvorak has enough readership that he doesn’t really need to pimp pageviews as you suggest. His opinions might not always end up being correct but they are probably a lot more informed than yours) I went on and read the essay by Paul Graham.

Paul, why your article might have a few things that are correct your premise that Microsoft is dead is wrong. I think you are correct that the “shadow” Microsoft has cast over the computing industry is gone but your four reasons as to why that happened are far off the mark. Here is why.

  1. Google

    Gmail certainly showed that Google could do more than search. However what is impressive about Gmail isn’t its AJAX functionalilty. I think most people tend to be impressed by the user interface as a whole and the fact that it lets you use Google search on your email. Let’s look at a few points related to these two things.

    • The way Gmail displays emails is vastly different (not necessarily superior) to most other email applications. The way threaded discussions are displayed and can be easily traversed is always one of the major points people mention about the Gmail UI.
    • Labels are used to organize email instead of folders. I find this useful because I can easily tag messages with multiple labels which is a nicer way to organize them than folders. Labels/tags was certainly not a Gmail first but Google put it to good use. Thunderbird has this feature. Outlook has had this feature for ages. I can easily categorize email in Outlook 2003. I can also create pretty powerful search folders in Outlook 2003 and 2007 if I don’t want to use the traditional folder metaphor. Outlook 2007 has even better categorizing features as well as search (with the help of Windows Desktop Search in XP….by default on Vista). These are both more powerful than what is in Gmail.
    • Gmail lets you have a large mail store and lets you apply Google’s search technology to it. This is a great feature. I can get this just as easily with desktop tools. In fact with Google’s own Desktop Search (there is that nasty word, desktop) I can index and search lots of different document types that I can’t with Gmail. Score one for the desktop again.
  2. AJAX

    Paul goes on to dismiss the fact that while Microsoft invented the technology needed to get the first A and X part of AJAX (XMLHttpRequest) they didn’t put it to good use except for Outlook (the webmail version of Outlook that comes with Exchange Server 2003 is pretty damn powerful and that was prior to the release of Gmail). He even goes so far as to say:

    What they didn’t realize was that it would be useful to a lot of other people too—in fact, to anyone who wanted to make web apps work like desktop ones.

    For a guy who admitted in the same article that he never paid too much attention to Microsoft he seems to know quite a lot about what they were thinking.

    Isn’t it odd to think that Microsoft might think others might find it useful when they found it so useful themselves? Isn’t it also odd that people are so in love now with, what was for years, an IE-only technology? What about browser independence? Those damn Evil-Doers at Microsoft were only thinking of themselves again! Now AJAX is the darling of the web development community and Microsoft still gets slammed. It’s an amazing world.

    Paul then lays this big egg:

    And that was the second cause of Microsoft’s death: everyone can see the desktop is over. It now seems inevitable that applications will live on the web—not just email, but everything, right up to Photoshop. Even Microsoft sees that now.

    Whoa there Tex! It might seem inevitable to a guy who is funding Web 2.0 companies that all applications will live on the web but it isn’t inevitable to all of us. He links to the “Photoshop on the web”. Given that the linked application doesn’t cover even a quarter of the functionality of Photoshop it shows that Paul has either never seen or used Photoshop or that he has and he’s vastly underestimating the power of Javascript.

    Now if Paul were saying that desktop applications might be extended by using the web I would have to agree. We have already seen that happening a lot now and it’s a logical step. To conclude that all applications will be web-based is pretty naive. Not every application needs to be web-based (just as some don’t necessarily need to have a desktop version) and if the desktop is dead than how will I do anything when I’m not connected to the Internet? What happens if I don’t want to be connected to the Internet? How does Paul explain the large number of desktop blogging tools available (including a very good one from Microsoft which works with other platforms including their own)? I am typing this in the WordPress editor only because I don’t happen to have Live Writer installed on this machine yet. If I did I’d be using that instead of the WP web UI because its more powerful.

    The last area of AJAX Paul mentions is JavaScript and I’m really not sure where he came up with this:

    The other critical component of Ajax is Javascript, the programming language that runs in the browser. Microsoft saw the danger of Javascript and tried to keep it broken for as long as they could. [1] But eventually the open source world won, by producing Javascript libraries that grew over the brokenness of Explorer the way a tree grows over barbed wire.

    Certainly there have been issues in IE but JScript (they don’t call it JavaScript Paul) has been ECMAScript compliant for years. I’m not sure how that is trying to keep it broken.

  3. Broadband Internet

    The third cause of Microsoft’s death was broadband Internet. Anyone who cares can have fast Internet access now. And the bigger the pipe to the server, the less you need the desktop.

    Sure Paul but as I asked before what happens when I cannot or do not want to be connected to the Internet? I can have a network pipe 5 miles wide that won’t do me a bit of good I’m not hooked up to it.

  4. Apple

    Ah I just knew Apple had to come into this somewhere and this is where Paul goes completely off his rocker.

    Thanks to OS X, Apple has come back from the dead in a way that is extremely rare in technology.

    No. The return of Steve Jobs and the first iMac are to thank for Apple coming back from the dead. OS X was just icing on the cake. Without those two things OS X never would have happened.

    Their victory is so complete that I’m now surprised when I come across a computer running Windows. Nearly all the people we fund at Y Combinator use Apple laptops. It was the same in the audience at startup school. All the computer people use Macs or Linux now. Windows is for grandmas, like Macs used to be in the 90s. So not only does the desktop no longer matter, no one who cares about computers uses Microsoft’s anyway.

    This quote is so chock full of goodness I am almost giddy by the opportunities provided here that can be responded to. The contradictions are almost endless!

    Fact: the Mac and Mac OS X still have minuscule market share. Apple’s victory is nowhere near complete. Paul must live in a bubble if he is surprised when he runs across a computer running Windows. Paul thinks that all computer people now use Macs or Linux because in his small world its true!

    But here is the kicker of this quote: people who care about computers don’t use Windows! I’m writing this on a Windows machine and I apparently care enough that I’ve spent a fair amount of time responding to this crap he is posting. If you do Java development (if I remember correctly Paul had some post against Java as well) Windows is probably the best platform to do it on. If only the cool kids are using Mac and Linux Paul then why can I get all of the good open source stuff like Apache, MySql, PostgreSQL, etc, etc, etc in easily installable packages on Windows? Why is Python on the Mac such a mess?

It really pains me that smart guys like Paul Graham don’t seem to think before posting “essays” like this one. I realize it is his opinion but for a guy who is apparenly very smart this essay does not seem well-informed. Not only does it not seem well-informed but it is downright nasty in its implications (just as this one was in respect to Java programmers). In order to care about computers you have to use a Mac or Linux. Thanks for writing off such a large population of the computing field Paul.

7 thoughts on “Paul Graham says Microsoft is dead. Why he’s wrong.

  1. You’re attacking two different thin gs. his premise that Microsoft’s heydey is long over is correct, it’s just that he’s focusing on the wrong reasons for why this happened – and it’s not because of Apple obviously….


  2. The guy must be living in a bunker to be making such sensationalist claims. The problem with most of these MS bashing guys is that I believe they have never worked in a big enterprise. Most of them don’t even know how technologies from MS enable businesses. That is the sad part of it. There is nothing wrong in criticizing MS but one has to know his facts well before he does.


  3. ASJ-

    The clarity of my writing could certainly have been a bit more clear. I was attempting to show that he was completely wrong, not just wrong about the title of his essay.

    The one area he is correct on is that their shadow doesn’t cast itself over the IT industry anymore. However, and this is where I was not being clear, I think he is dead wrong (as is anyone else) that Microsoft is irrelevant. They certainly are not the Microsoft of old but they are far from irrelevant. For Microsoft to have created the Zune in such a short timeframe and be the second best selling DAP in the market the last holiday season is nothing short of incredible. That is moving *fast*.

    Graham is wrong. I could have just done a better job showing why 😉


  4. I realize you wrote this months ago, but I still feel a need to comment.

    Apple’s recent popularity has not killed, nor appears to be killing Microsoft. Just because there are a lot of iPods roaming around, that doesn’t mean that Apple’s computer sales have take over Microsoft. Dell still seems to be in business. That must mean that Microsoft isn’t dead yet.

    Apparently Paul views the world from his limited bubble and no further. People who “care” about computers aren’t the only people who USE computers. People who don’t like them and who are ambivalent toward them still use them. And I’m quite certain those folks can be found using either brand — based on their company’s purchasing choices, not necessarily their own.

    Methinks the guy need to get out in the world and take a look around. There are many different types of people out there. To each his own.


  5. Thanks for the reply Bridget.

    You are certainly correct….Microsoft’s profits dwarfed Apple’s last quarter and the amount was really shocking. And I still think Graham is wrong. I think Microsoft does ‘get it’ but as usual they’re late to the game. They have pretty large coffers to keep refining their stuff though so I don’t count them out by any stretch especially in the Flash space. Adobe has a real competitor in the Silverlight product.


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