The Web is the Next Platform, 5/27/1995

I started working full-time on what became Internet Explorer 1.0 in early October, 1994, grew the engineering team to 67 individuals by the time we shipped IE 3.0 in August, 1996, and got very little sleep (I worked 80-100 hours/week for 17 of the 22 months I led the IE team).

There were (naturally) a lot of discussions within Microsoft about the future of the Internet, and I found myself with a lot of opinions, so I wrote this 17 page memo to crystallize my thinking (and share it with a wider audience) in preparation for a Microsoft “Internet Offsite” held in early June.

In my executive Summary at the start of the memo, I wrote a very stark opening sentence to make sure there was no mistaking my point of view:

The Web (as I will loosely refer to the Internet and it’s evolving data formats and protocols) exists today as a collection of technologies that deliver some interesting solutions today, and will grow rapidly in the coming years into a full-fledged platform that will rival — and even surpass — Microsoft Windows.

As you might imagine, BillG, SteveB, and others were not delighted that I was predicting the eventual decline of Windows a few months before we shipped Windows 95. 🙂

I wrapped up my executive Summary as follows:

I will try to make and support the following key points in the rest of this memo:

  1. The Web is an application platform (complete with APIs, data formats, and protocols) that threatens Windows — many corporate developers and ISVs could develop and deliver their solutions more quickly, to a wider audience, with the Web than they can with Windows or MSN as it exists today.
  2. If Microsoft is to influence the Web, we must have broad, standards-based Web support in our products — we have to be the product supplier of choice for all key existing Web technologies — clients, servers, and publishing tools, at a minimum.
  3. Once we have market and mind share on the Web with our products, we can take a leadership role in expanding and shaping the Web.

Here is the full first section from my memo, and you are welcome to read the full 17 page PDF at your leisure.

1.1. Why is the Web a Threat to Windows?
The Web today is a rapidly maturing application delivery platform — you can shop for and buy wine, play hangman, Rubik’s cube, and chess, read and augment conversation threads, check up-to-date weather forecasts and stock prices, read the latest news headlines, get dealer costs for cars, look up 1-800 phone numbers, download movie trailers, music clips from major recording labels, look up zip codes based on addresses, get real-time photographs from San Francisco and U. of Washington, and order food from restaurants in 8 different cities. And these are all done with a simple HTML 2.0 web viewer (like Netscape, Mosaic, or our Internet Explorer)!

You can also conduct a phone call with anyone anywhere else in the world (“internet phone”, just CB radio quality now, but that will improve), read USENET news groups (NNTP), join a chat session (Internet Relay Chat), join a 3D chat session (Worlds Away), and hear streaming, low-quality audio (RealAudio — ex-MS folks robg, philba, martind).

My nightmare scenario is that the Web grows into a rich application platform in an operating system-neutral way, and then a company like Siemens or Matsushita comes out with a $500 “WebMachine” that attaches to a TV. This WebMachine will let the customer do all the cool Internet stuff, plus manage home finances (all the storage is at the server side), and play games. When faced with the choice between a $500 box (RISC CPU, 4-8Mb RAM, no hard disk, …) and a $2KPentium/P6 Windows machine, the 2/3rds of homes that don’t have a PC may find the $500 machine pretty attractive!

The following attributes of the Web are paramount:
1. Server-side information and interactive applications are key (the viewer is just enabling technology.
2. Universal data formats and viewers enable the web to grow in richness and power — the Web is a platform that no one controls and everyone can enhance.

Examples of some cool, interactive uses of the web today that may not have been imagined or intended by the creators of HTTP & HTML:

1. Virtual Vineyards (http://www.virtualvin.com) — examine their list of wines, see graphic charts of wine flavors and tastes, add wines to a shopping basket, and order the selected wines. They put a “session id” in the “redirect” URL that you get when you first visit, and use this to track state (your shopping basket) for you on the server.

2. Play Rubik’s cube (http://vadim.www.media.mit.edu/cube.htm) — presents a 3x3x3 Rubik’s cube graphic, complete with “mirrors” to see the hidden sides. You click on arrows on the corners to rotate sections, and it sends you the new rotation.  Uses a sensitive map.

3. Send a web postcard (http://persona.www.media.mit.edu/Postcards) — let’s you pick a picture and send a message to someone’s e-mail box. Recipient gets an e-mail message telling them to go to a special URL that has a page with the postcard — the picture plus the message you composed.

4. Movie database and rating system (http://www.msstate.edu/Movies) — this is an Internet user-maintained movie database, more movies than Cinemania, reviews by any random web surfer, credits, actors, actresses, producers, directors, etc.  45,926 titles, 4,569 plot summaries, 6,516 have been rated by surfers, 79,619 actors, 43,942 actresses, 10,289 directors.  Shows use of HTML as a user interface to a database.

Notes:
1. The title of my memo is “The Web is the Next Platform (v5)”, so I wrote four drafts which I circulated for feedback.
2. My predictions of the future price and features of a “WebMachine” were woefully modest: the specs for smart phones and tablets today are in some cases 1000 times greater.
3. As of 8/15/2017, none of the URLs for the four examples that I cited 22 years ago are still working.

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