The teachings of failure

We’ve seen this movie: the one where a big company takes over a whole market ecosystem. There was IBM with mainframes, Microsoft with operating systems, Apple with pocket music players (and now apps for phones and tablets).

But there’s another movie too. That’s the one where the big company fails. IBM did that with PCs. (They started the ball rolling, but no longer even make the things.) Apple did it with PDAs, when the Newton flopped. And Microsoft, even in its glory days, failed at a lot of things.

One big one was directories. All but lost in the sands of time is Netscape’s lone victory over a Microsoft move to make everybody in the world use Active Directory. That story was told by Craig Burton in an Interview I did for the late Websmith (later merged into Linux Journal) fourteen years ago this month.

Another was identity, and single sign-on. Microsoft tried that with Hailstorm, and flopped.

And now comes Facebook with social graphs, which Barrett Sheridan calls a Play to Take Over the Entire Internet, and Mark Zuckerberg (two links back) says is the “next version of Facebook Platform,” which he says “puts people at the center of the web.”

Right. Sez Mark,

We think that the future of the web will be filled with personalized experiences. We’ve worked with three pre-selected partners—Microsoft Docs, Yelp and Pandora—to give you a glimpse of this future, which you can access without having to login again or click to connect. For example, now if you’re logged into Facebook and go to Pandora for the first time, it can immediately start playing songs from bands you’ve liked across the web. And as you’re playing music, it can show you friends who also like the same songs as you, and then you can click to see other music they like.

We look forward to a future where all experiences are this easy and personalized, and we’re happy today to take the next important step to get there.

Of course, then we no longer have the Web. We have the Union of Soviet Social Graph Vendors.

This will fail, of course. Commercial containers for the Web (social or otherwise) are limited. They have rules. They are the Great Indoors, which can neither control nor compete with the Great Outdoors which is the Web itself.

But discovering this plain fact will take some time. Or, more to the point, waste it. The hard way.

As usual, Dave Winer nails the diagnostics, with Will this loop ever end? Sez Dave,

Facebook is hot now, but history has shown that being a hotbed doesn’t scale. That eventually these companies have to tap into the general talent pool and they end up achieving the same level of mediocrity as the previous dominant one. It happened to IBM, the minicomputer companies, IBM again, Microsoft, now it’s Google’s turn, and soon it will be Facebook’s.

Let’s go back to Microsoft and Hailstorm. It’s important to remember the hysteria surrounding that move. Many thought that this was The End. Here is what I wrote at the time on my blog. I just copied and pasted the html below (from Google’s cache, while the archive was offline…  somehow the bold-faced search terms give it a little extra punch, so I’m leaving them in)…

Trojan Storm

The storm has arrived, and the peerage is weighing in with its reactions.

When I first read about Hailstorm, it scared the shit out of me. (As it also did to Joel Spolsky, who gives us a fine tech-level explanation of exactly why.)

But at a deeper level — the social level where the Net connects us — I have complete faith in forces more powerful than any monopoly’s wet dream. And that’s the Net.

The Net is ours. Not Microsoft’s. Hailstorm is heavy weather, but the Net is geology. Our geology. It’s us, not just me (pun intended).

Computing isn’t personal any more. It’s social. Microsoft understands that, but it’s not where they come from. Where they come from is the desktop. Always have, always will. It’s not for nothing they’re called Microsoft.

With Hailstorm, Microsoft is doing a beautiful job of being itself. As always, they’re draping users in bountiful benefits, whether those users want them or not). That’s just what Microsoft does. They can’t help it. They come from the desktop, just like Apple comes from art and Nordstrom comes from shoes.

And they sound very convincing, because they’re busy advocating the user. You can’t go wrong there, can you?

O yeah. You always go wrong when you characterize competent human beings as weak and helpless — and then tell them your stuff is their only hope. That’s exactly what Microsoft does in the very first line of Building the User-centric Experience:

    Users are definitely not in control of the technology that surrounds them.  Asked to adapt to the differences between the way they interact with local programs and sites on the web, asked to cope with doing things completely differently on their cell phone, their PC, and any other device they have, users are generally frustrated and confused.

Like moths in a lampshade. How sad. And whose fault is that?

    If you want to enter a friend’s new phone number into your PC, you use a keyboard and a piece of software like Microsoft Outlook to do it using a particular sequence of keystrokes and mouse clicks.  But to enter that same information into your Palm Pilot, you need to learn a completely new interface – right down to relearning how to draw the letters of the alphabet!

Oh! It’s Palm’s fault! That OS is so hard to use. Not easy like Outlook, which is so encrusted with options that few users ever figure the damn thing out. (To say the least of it.) The insults continue:

    This environment, in which users are forced to adapt to technology instead of technology adapting to users, creates significant restrictions on how effective any application or Web site can be, and ultimately hinders the acceptance and adoption of not only the technologies themselves, but also the real-world products and services that might be best offered to a user in the context of the things they do online.

The environment we’re talking about here is called a market. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, it’s full of choices that don’t agree with each other. But it’s the natural habitat for business. It’s also networked to the gills. That network is where users live. Not just Windows. Not just .Net, whatever it becomes.

The Trojan Storm here isn’t Windows or even .Net. It’s Internet Explorer.

The Net is ours, indeed. But most of us interact with it through a Microsoft browser. That browser is about to get a lot fatter. That’s the only way to interpret this:

    HailStorm services are oriented around people, instead of around a specific device, application, service, or network.  They put the user in control of their own data and information, protecting personal information and making user consent the basis for who can access it, what they can do with it, and for how long they have that permission.

It’s time for us to stop acting like an audience and start acting like a market. For that we need to do three things:

  1. Work with the hackers to make Mozilla the best possible alternative to Internet Explorer — and fast.
  2. Start paying more attention and respect to other developers who are working together to make the Net something that works better for all of us (and that includes interested developers inside Microsoft — it’s a big company).
  3. Expose Hailstorm for what it is: yet another attempt by Microsoft to collapse the Net into its own service framework. And to say this won’t work because the Net’s context is bigger than any vendor, no matter how privileged they are with “critical mass.”

It’s important to remember that this is not just about Microsoft’s napoleonic corporate personality, which is equally real and beside the point, making it the biggest red herring in business history.

It’s about building out the Net’s infrastructure. .Net doesn’t do it. Hailstorm doesn’t do it. Java doesn’t do it. No “solution” controlled by one vendor will do it.

You can’t privatize what only works because it’s public. Microsoft hasn’t learned that lesson yet. Let’s help them.

And we did. Mozilla succeeded, and so have other browsers. Identity still isn’t a solved problem and may never be — at least not in the simple way one gets when the Eye of Sauron rules the world. But the very fact that good people are working on identity and related problems out in the open is endlessly encouraging.

Speaking of which, the 10th Internet Identity Workshop is happening in Mountain View next month. Micrtosoft is a sponsor, as are many other companies and organizations, some of which (Information Card Foundation, Open ID Foundation) grew directly or indirectly out of IIW conversations. In fact, Microsoft’s good identity work (started by Kim Cameron and colleagues there) would not have happened without Hailstorm’s failure.

If Facebook and Twitter are smart (and listen to their elders), they’ll skip the loop. Burn the movie. Get Net- and Web-compliant. Because that’s where nature will takes us in the long run anyway. Let’s not keep making that run longer than it needs to be.


  1. KD’s avatar

    Just a heads-up: There seems to be a problem with the link in the third paragraph to the interview with Craig Burton.

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, KD. Fixed the link.

  3. Dave Winer’s avatar

    RSS was what the market wanted, not Hailstorm.

    Didn’t interest the tech gods at MS at the time because its tech majesty wasn’t a reflection of their brilliance and it wasn’t even slightly macho, in a Humvee sense.

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Right again, Dave. And thanks for doing what Microsoft couldn’t, wouldn’t or both.

    Your “tech majesty” line brings home how terribly Royal these guys can be. They are monarchs who think their city-states can run the whole world. Or worse, that they can bring the whole world inside their city-states. This comes naturally, because we put crowns and robes on their CEOs, tell them to sit on thrones and stand on pedestals, while we sit at their feet and listen to their every word as if their voices came from a burning bush.

    The sad fact is that these closed spaces — the MySpaces and Facebooks (like the Orkuts and Friendsters before them) — are more like big bars and nightclubs where crowds go to hang for awhile, until they get bored or tired and move on.

  5. DAVIDCESAR3’s avatar

    Hi. The posting really very interesting…but I have a real concern about its extension. Do you believe that somebody is going to read the complete article? Thanks. Dave did a very fine work!

  6. vu ha’s avatar

    Are we really trying to blame Facebook because it wants to see the first movie? Empires rise and fall. When they rise, mankind benefits (PC/Windows/Search), their shareholders rejoice, and a select few got filthy rich. When they fall, nobody really get hurt.

    What goes up must come down. You call it a bad movie, I call it capitalism and natural evolution.

    PS: I believe in a capitalist VRM. Nothing can survive without capital, even openness and innovation.

  7. Kevin Russell’s avatar

    Absolutely it will fail! Its laughable how Zuckerberg’s view of FB’s ‘syndicate’ single sign- is naively confused, with “put[ing] people at the center of the web”. As you point out, this thinking gives us has-been-USSGV, and demonstrates a naive historical ignorance and/or misunderstanding of the fundamental genome of TCP/IP. FB might do well to brush up on the fields of evolutionary biology and successfully fit mechanisms in adaptable ecosystems. Although this is antithetical to the VC/Wall Street fractional reserve based, return timeline model, and their surely past that stage, it would be nice to see some real transformative thinking.

  8. camping knives’s avatar

    It does not surprise me that one of the big boys on the web is trying to find away to corner the market. I believe like you do that there is to much involved for the new plan to work. Thanks for the great article

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