For those who are interested in history (and why you should start thinking about shorting your Google stock) here’s a little background…
In television shows there almost inevitably comes a time when the show decides that they are sufficiently popular or important to give up on their premise and start catering not to their audience but to either a new audience they want to attract or to the egos of their key performers. The mark of this is "very special episodes" or episodes where a cast member "has to" sing or when they have a cast member do a water ski jump over a shark tank.
In the computer industry there are two equivalents.
Application Vendor Shark Jumping
For application vendors it comes when one or more of their founders decides that they want to kill off Office by building or more frequently acquiring additional applications to build their own suite. The results are predictable.
- WordPerfect tried it. Anybody here use WordPerfect as their word processor lately?
- Ashton-Tate tried it. The results can be seen in what market share is left for the formerly dominant dBase franchise.
- Lotus tried it. The company that owned spreadsheets is now a minor division of another ghost of its former self, IBM.
- And that particular shark jumping was even tried by a systems house, Novell. I guess that proves you can even have hubris so massive you can cross the systems/applications boundary.
System Software Shark Jumping
On the systems side of the industry the shark jumping moment comes not by saying "let’s build an OS to compete with Windows" because that’s actually very difficult IBM, Apple and SUN have all tried multiple times and failed miserably multiple times. It’s expensive, requires a huge infrastructure and massive partner acceptance.
The way systems houses jump the shark is to say, "There’s no need for an operating system any more. We’re going to make Windows irrelevant by moving the programming layer above the OS". This is tied to their odd belief that people (not people like them, of course, but people they hold in some contempt like their end users) shouldn’t really have an OS, they’d really be better off and would really prefer a variant of the old terminal model. And so they launch a "new" product line which will move these "users" over to something better suited to their perceived lack of skills – it’s worth noting that these same executives pretty much always find a reason why they haven’t been able to switch over.
- IBM was built on the central power/powerless user model and fell back on it by crippling their PC line when it began to hurt their System/3x family.
- SUN tried multiple times (most famously with SUNray terminals)
- Oracle decided that users didn’t need an OS and pushed a line of processors that ran Java natively (and a mini-OS to go with them)
In each case, the company (IBM, SUN, Oracle, Netscape) never recovered and if they survived at all it’s only as a ghost of what the were.
Today Google announced their plans to move into the arena of shark jumping. And, since I trust Steve Ballmer and company to have a fair understanding of history, I’d bet there are people dancing and popping champagne in the executive offices at the Microsoft campus as I write this.