These days so much of the world is seen through the lens of the horror movie. Even thinking about software seems to have that character. RSS is declared dead, but lives on. Software eats the world. Microsoft is declared dead by the cloud vendors, but continues to live on in zombie form. When the fundamental computing environment changes to such a degree that a particular software solution would no longer be generated from the new set of assumptions, it’s the beginning of the end. While zombie software still operates, its roots are in the previous computing environment. Uprooted, it continues to live, but lacks purchase for continued organic growth in the new soils of computing. In a zombie apocalypse, the undead triumph over the living.
I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld,
I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors flat down,
and will let the dead go up to eat the living!
And the dead will outnumber the living!
Ishtar in the Epic of Gilgamesh
While the Stacks have settled into small group of feudal kingdoms, the raison d’etre of each of them is to be the One. A single platform would be so much more efficient, surely it’s the most rational way to proceed. At this level, platform software has the character of an extra-terrestrial virus that when mixed with earth’s biosphere rampantly multiplies killing all other life forms and replacing them with a version of itself. But in a nice way, with more efficiency and productivity. Imagine being undead as a positive thing. In the movies this fantasy plays out in a number of ways. The Andromeda Strain, The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and my favorite, Five Million Years to Earth, all address our fear of being consumed and turned into alien beings. The malevolence we feel is not so much evil as the amoral neutrality of an algorithm executing until completion. In Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” it’s called “Ice Nine”, a substance that turns all water it touches into more ice nine.
From the Wikipedia entry on Ice Nine:
Ice-nine is a fictional material appearing in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle. Ice-nine is supposedly a polymorph of water more stable than common ice (Ice Ih); instead of melting at 0 °C (32 °F), it melts at 45.8 °C (114.4 °F). When ice-nine comes into contact with liquid water below 45.8 °C (thus effectively becoming supercooled), it acts as a seed crystal and causes the solidification of the entire body of water, which quickly crystallizes as more ice-nine. As people are mostly water, ice-nine kills nearly instantly when ingested or brought into contact with soft tissues exposed to the bloodstream, such as the eyes.
In the story, it is developed by the Manhattan Project for use as a weapon, but abandoned when it becomes clear that any quantity of it would have the power to destroy all life on earth. A global catastrophe involving freezing the world’s oceans with ice-nine is used as a plot device in Vonnegut’s novel.
Many feared that Microsoft was on the verge of achieving 100% domination of computing before the consent decree from the justice department breaking up the monopoly. For many in the technology community that was the climax of the horror film, the invading virus was finally defeated by the United States Government. A space was opened up for other platforms to grow and prosper. But the seeds of a sequel were planted. As a practical matter, Microsoft was prevented from securing world domination, but the attitude that desired world domination remained dominant. In the new post-consent decree world the nascent platforms saw this as their chance at world domination. They took aim at Microsoft.
Time passes and a key element in the computing environment changes. The mechanism and speed of software upgrades is fundamentally altered through network-connected computing. More recently cloud services offer that same speed for the most software infrastructure. Just as mobile devices disrupted desktop computing, the speed of network-based software updates have made the shrink wrapped software business obsolete. In a sense software itself becomes mobile, it has a speed and trajectory. The large installed base of enterprise software has remained locked into the slow upgrade cycle of the last era of computing. We now see the personal technology of the worker far outstripping the technology of the corporation.
The real innovation in software was creating the environment where updating, refactoring and completely revising software programs isn’t a painful event. In fact, it isn’t an event at all — just an everyday activity. The capacity to implement real-time upgrades and lower the cost of change is much more important than whatever software is currently in use. Because next week or next month, the software will be improved with a seamless incremental upgrade. It’s one reason that software version numbers don’t really make sense any more. The major version numbers used to signal to users and administrators the cost and level of pain involved in adopting the new version.
As speed became important, Microsoft got faster too. So much so that the most current set of Microsoft products are qualitatively different than the previous generation. Microsoft has pulled so far ahead of Microsoft that a large gap has been created. Microsoft can now look back and see Microsoft in the distance. This is the moment in the horror movie where the monster is split in two. And while all the other technology platforms are fighting Zombie Microsoft, there’s a new piece of Microsoft that’s also fighting against the Zombie. Something similar happened at Apple when a separate team flying a pirate flag was broken off to work on the Macintosh. Microsoft has joined the field of companies competing against Microsoft. They find themselves in a strange situation — in order for Microsoft to live, Microsoft must die at the hands of Microsoft.