Joel Spolsky and the Temple of Doom

Joel Spolsky and the Temple of Doom. I'm back, with a very interesting topic too!

Joel Spolsky, ex-Microsoft Manager and software engineering guru has a new essay, How Microsoft Lost the API War that is creating quite a big storm in the blogging communitiy.

Joel posits that the priests in the holy Temple of Microsoft have lost their way, because it has split into two factions, and the wrong faction is winning. One faction worships on the alter of backward compatibility, while the other is led by fervent priests who are proselytizing to raise up the new gods of .NET and Longhorn. Joel suggests that the new gods will cause the destruction of the holy Temple because Microsoft's great victories were built on the altar of keeping customers happy with backward compatibility. Furthermore the old gods of the Windows API continue to grow more grotesque and cruel with the passing of time, driving former worshipers into the arms of the friendlier gods of World Wide Web.

This story sounds extremely plausible. I must admit that i fit the profile of the developer who used to develop on the Window's API, is familiar with COM and Win32 who now develops mostly using PHP and Python. However I continue to develop and maintain Windows apps that keep our customers happy, and we still plan to develop new Windows apps. Some points:

Temple of the Blind?

Firstly, Microsoft is still a compelling place to work for to people who feel that they can make a difference. The Temple continues to attract talented people with a Unix background. For example we have the recent hiring of Ward Cunningham, author of the Wiki. Microsoft is still able to keep talented people like Raymond Chen, and others like him who continue to look after the Windows API, and Longhorn apparently will still give high priority to backward compatibility. Open sourcerers like Miguel Icaza are sufficiently attracted to the .NET vision to stake their careers on Mono. Longhorn and .NET are compelling technologies, so even if Win32 is not so cute anymore, M'soft is providing something that remains very attractive.

What i do see M'soft doing wrong is that they aren't disseminating the .NET runtime fast enough. It remains an optional install in XP Service Pack 2 for example. Also their IE dev team appears to be hog-tied due to political reasons; nevertheless IE remains good enough, particularly when I can embed IE as an activeX control, something I cannot do with Mozilla (AFAIK) – Update: I'm wrong.

Temple of the Spider?

Secondly, people don't merely use a web browser. They run the web browser in the OS. So let me ask you, if you are using DreamWeaver or HomeSite or Photoshop or vi or emacs or Gimp, how many of you are willing to give it up for a java applet (or whatever your favorite technology is) running in your web-browser? Precisely.

Temple of the Abandoned?

Third, Joel makes the claim that developers are not developing to the Windows API. Well he could be right. But I bet a lot of them are still calling Win32. If you are using a framework or IDE like Delphi or wxWindows (or .NET or VB) then you certainly are insulated from the Windows API, but that doesn't mean that you're not calling the Windows API all the time. I don't see Borland dropping their Windows version of Delphi at any point in time.

In fact, the fact that many developers are using some form of framework is a compelling argument for Microsoft to enhance the .NET framework to attract developers who are using other frameworks.

Today, not that many students learn x86 assembler, but that doesn't mean that Intel lost the CPU wars. Just because fewer people are learning Win32 doesn't mean Microsoft has lost the API wars, if the frameworks run predominantly on Win32.

Temple of the Lost

Joel even warns you in the beginning that “because I'm talking about big trends, I need to exaggerate and generalize“. But you still get sucked in because Joel Spolsky is a first-class writer, in the same order as Philip Greenspun or Eric Raymond. That makes him so persuasive and plausible. But this is not Indiana Jones and doomed temples, but Steve Jobs and reality distortion fields.

Other opinions: Harry Fuecks (PHP is ASP's upgrade path), Dennis Hamilton (M'soft is just covering all bases), Robert McLaws (Joel is wrong in 7 points), Oliver Travers (the web is not good enough), One Run-time to Rule them all….  [PHP Everywhere by John Lim]

Leave a comment