IBM, Microsoft & Google Eras of Computing

By now it is conventional wisdom to say that there was an IBM Era of computing, then a Microsoft Era, and now we are in the Google Era. In this post, I will explain why Microsoft was not the "next IBM" and why Google is not the "next Microsoft" - there are significant qualitative differences among them, quite apart from their status as the dominant, era-defining players. Understanding that qualitative difference is crucial for third party vendors  like Zoho to thrive.  I was reminded of this because of the IBM/Google partnership unveiled today (via Dan Farber & see also Nick Carr). As an aside, I have coined a kind of Moore's Law on these computing eras:

The dominant technology company in a generation reaches its pinnacle at about half the size of the dominant company in the previous generation, and it retains its dominance for half as long.

The original IBM mainframe era (in contrast to today's IBM) was one of highly closed systems. IBM was not just the dominant player of the era, IBM was pretty much the entire ecosystem. There just wasn't a lot of room for third parties to play in. Third parties were marginalized companies surviving on IBM's sufferance or professional services companies (like EDS) or were providers of cheap replacement parts, which felt vaguely dirty, borderline legal (consider today's third party print cartridge situation as an analogy). 

In contrast to IBM, Microsoft was far more open, which indeed was the original reason for their success. Microsoft unleashed what I would call the semi-open era of computing. The acronym ISV (independent software vendor) came into its own during the Microsoft era. Indeed, Microsoft encouraged ISVs, provided fairly good support - up to a point. The defining test for Microsoft was Netscape, the most prominent ISV that got on the wrong side of Microsoft. Microsoft failed the test by winning; their victory over Netscape forever established their reputation in the industry, a reputation that finds its echo in Yahoo's cultural resistance to being assimilated. Indeed Nick Carr alludes to that defining Netscape moment in his title "Is Office the New Netscape?"

Now the present Google era. Google has the genetic and cultural advantage of being born in an open source world, with a business model that is aligned with rather than antagonistic to open source. It reflects in how they conduct their ecosystem initiatives. Google Gears comes with one of the most liberal open source licenses (BSD license),   and we at Zoho particularly appreciate the support provided Google's open source teams. In our extensive interaction with them, we could tell how they truly get the value of openness. That openness is going to be the underpinning of the Google era of computing - I hope they never forget that!

OK, that brings me to our own position as an independent vendor. At Zoho, we fully embrace the fact that we play in a Google world. We also fully recognize that opportunities for independent ecosystem players expanded massively during the Microsoft semi-open era compared to what existed in the IBM era, and they will expand even more significantly in the Google open era. Our goal at Zoho is to be an innovative, vibrant, profitable player in this new era. As much as Microsoft utterly dominated computing, vendors such as Adobe and Intuit built thriving businesses (still thriving!). Even more opportunities of that kind exist for independent ecosystem players in the Google era.

That qualitative difference between IBM, Microsoft & Google (seen during their respective pinnacles) is why we see a huge opportunity at Zoho. Our competition with Google is only a part, an important part to be sure, of what defines us. Cooperation with Google, embracing their open standards, is going to be just as important for our success.


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