“They have no bearing on what I do,” says Hansson of the software giant. But he admits there is something sad about no longer having an “evil empire” to rally against.
Question: What is Microsoft doing to compete with popular open source frameworks like Rails?
David Hansson: So I think the economic motive for Microsoft for doing all this is very clear. They want to sell Windows and they want to sell SQL Server and they want to sell that entire stack of stuff. And that entire stack of stuff doesn't have a very good track record of working well with the other side of things, the open source side of things. So if that's not true, then you pretty much have to do everything yourself. I find that most Microsoft shops are exactly that, they're Microsoft shops. They use Microsoft from top to bottom, everything is Microsoft. It's Microsoft version control, it's Microsoft database server, it's Microsoft web servers, it's Microsoft development languages, it's Microsoft everything. And they get some benefits of sort of the virtual integration from that, but it also makes the community very insular, in my mind. I've met a fair number of Microsoft people who just know a lot about Microsoft stuff. And I mean, that's fair. It's just not the same kind of people that we really associate otherwise.
Versus on the open source side of things, like I talk to plenty of people who work in Python or other languages or frameworks, there's much more, I think, sharing of ideas between the different camps on, that are the line. Like, it's sort of pretty much open source or not open source. If you're in the open source world, you talk to other open source developers and look at other open source solutions. If you're on the sort of proprietary closed, whatever you want to call it, Microsoft-side of things, you just stay in your own camp.
So it makes perfect business sense to me for them to devote all this time to it. I don't know if it makes business sense for a lot of shops to choose that. Most of the time, it doesn't seem to pan out, like I would never want to start my business using stuff that would add up to heavy, heavy license fees. Once you get into the open source mentality and mindset, there's just something almost offensive about that. Just saying, like, "I don't want to be locked in to somebody else's platform that I can't actually change." It comes down to sort of a fundamental sense of freedom. Do I have the freedom to change and switch out and substitute the tools that I'm using with? Or am I bound to some master? And I picked what I find to be freedom in that sort of dichotomy, even if it's a little contrived.
Question: Will Microsoft continue to be dominant in 10 years?
David Hansson: I think that Microsoft is still a huge and profitable company and will be for a very long time. I think that they're dying by 1,000 cuts, but those 1,000 cuts might take 1,000 years to inflict a mortal wound. What I enjoy most, though, is unlike the '90s, where you had to care, and almost fear, Microsoft, that they were the big bully and they could control everything, today, for me, they're irrelevant. I don't care. They have no bearing on what I do. I don't have to use any Microsoft technology, I don't have to use Windows for this or any of their tools for that, and in fact, I don't, and haven't for a very long time. I sort of still have to care about Internet Explorer and making the web apps I create work on their stuff, but even that is becoming less of a concern. Gone are the days of Internet Explorer having 95% market share, long, long gone. Now, it's just sort of a nuisance. "Oh, crap, we have to deal with IE6, oh, all right." But, there's a big difference between fearing the 800-pound gorilla and then just waving at flies. Oh, these are annoying flies, get out of my face.
So, to me, I don't know. I've talked in the past about, it kind of feels sad. Like there was something interesting about having that evil empire there. There was something, a rallying cry, actually, for the open source movement, or we're against the evil Microsoft people. And now, they're not there any more. The evil genius has left the building and now you just have a sales organization that pushes stuff out to grey boxes and corporations that I really don't have to deal with that much. So, it's more just, for me, sad that they've been relegated to irrelevance, from my perspective. I'm sure they're still relevant for a lot of people that have to use it or even, heck, enjoy using it. Weird that might sound from my perspective, but again, big world, lots of room, no longer do you have to fear the gorilla, so that's good. We can just go on with our business and not worry about them coming in and stomping on stuff.
Question: Do you think any company can dominate the Web the way Microsoft dominated computers circa 1992?
David Hansson: I think the wonderful thing about the web is just that it's a level playing field. There is no one company that controls it, in no important way, like it used to be in the past, with the Windows monopoly, or it is today in some senses, with some of the iPhone, iPad, or Android platforms. On the Web, you work for nobody else. On the Web, you work for yourself. And you can pick the tools that you please for it. That's why Ruby and Rails happened for me. If I had had to build OS10 applications, or Windows applications, I would have had to use the tooling that those masters provided me with because that's usually how it goes. Yeah, you can develop with something else, but if you want that native, good experience, you damn well better use their tool and go in and be a sharecropper in their field.
On the Web, there's no such thing. It's an open standard. As long as you can generate HTML, which is something that everybody has sort of agreed upon how it should be read, you can use whatever you damn please. So that's really special. And I think that we sometimes take that for granted. It's easy to forget that it didn't used to be like this. It didn't used to be so open and so free where you could just anything you wanted and the user wouldn't care in the end. You can make the best web application in the world with any program language in the world, which is just incredible freedom and incredible freedom for innovation. New upstarts, new frameworks, new languages, they can all play on the same field. And there's nothing that sort of holds them back or makes them second-rate citizens.
Recorded July 22, 2010
Interviewed by Peter Hopkins