page 2 of 8
The Coming Software Shift
At the most essential level, Bill Joy of Sun illuminated Gatess dilemma at Esther Dysons PC Forum conference in 1990. Known as one of the great minds in software, yet losing share inexorably to Microsoft, Joy seemed to be moving into the role of conference crank. Year after year, he lamented the prolix inelegance of the triumphant waves of Microsoft programs sweeping through the industry: As we add more and more of these features to older systems, he said, the complexity gets multiplicative. I have 10 different packages that interact in 10-to-the- 10th different ways. I get all sorts of surprises, and yet because these things dont play together well the power is only additive. I get this feature and that feature but the combinations dont work. What Id really like to see is a system where the complexity goes up in a linear way but the power goes up exponentially.
In software, complexity has long been rising exponentially, while power has been rising additively. In response, Niklaus Wirth, the inventor of Pascal and other programming languages, has propounded two new Parkinsons Laws for software: Software expands to fill the available memory, and Software is getting slower more rapidly than hardware gets faster. Indeed, newer programs seem to run more slowly on most systems than their previous releases. Compare Word 6.0 for the Mac, for example, with Word 5.0, or WordPerfect 6.0 for Windows with WordPerfect for DOS.
But none of this matters. Gates has moved from triumph to triumph by shrewdly exploiting the advances of microcosmic hardware. With Moores Law and the Law of the Microcosm, the number of transistors on a chip doubles every 18 months, and cost/performance rises as the square of the number of transistors. The complexity sinks into the microcosm and power rises exponentially on the chip to absorb all the complexity grenades rolling down from Redmond.
Gates travels in the slipstream behind Moores Law, following a key rule of the microcosm: Waste transistors. As Nicholas Negroponte puts it, Every time Andy [Grove] makes a faster chip, Bill uses all of it. Wasting transistors is the law of thrift in the microcosm, and Gates has been its most brilliant and resourceful exponent.
Meanwhile, in the face of Gatess ascendancy, Bill Joy seemed to grow curls and shed influence, as Sun played rope-a-dope with Hewlett- Packard and other workstation rivals. In 1990, he retreated to a sylvan aerie in Aspen, Colo., to pursue advanced research for Sun. But his talk of small programs and handheld consumer appliances seemed irrelevant to the company.
Nonetheless, in early 1990, showing up latein a Hawaiian shirt to address a formal dinner in Silicon Valley, Bill Joy had a great prophetic moment. He cited the Moores Law trends as grounds for granting the first five years of the 1990s to Bill Gates. Its pretty much determined, he said. Indeed, in the late 1980s, Joy had personally made a separate peace with Microsoft by selling a large portion of his Sun holdings and buying Microsoft shares, thus becoming the second richest of Suns four founders. (The richest, Andy Bechtolsheim, jumped even deeper into Microsoft.) But then, around 1995, predicted Joy, everything would change. There would be a breakthrough that we cannot imagine today. He even acknowledged that the breakthrough would not come from Sun, but from people and companies we cannot know today.
The key to software innovation, he said, was smart programmers. Smart programmers are hundreds of times more productive than ordinary programmers. And lets be truthful, said the sage of Sun, propounding what has become known as Joys Law, most of the bright people dont work for youno matter who you are. You need a strategy that allows for innovation occurring elsewhere. To the Justice Department, Microsofts overwhelming OS market share and its teeming armies of programmers seem a barrier to entry for other software competitors. To Joy, Microsofts size and dominance could become a barrier to entry for Microsoft, blocking it from the key new markets of the late 1990s.
It is now clear that Joy was on target. The breakthrough is here in force, invading and occupying all the commanding heights of the information economy, from the media to the universities. It is the World Wide Web and its powerful browsers, servers, languages and programming tools. Software on individual machines still bogs down in the macrocosmic swamps of complexity. But in the telecosm, yields rise exponentially almost without limit in proportion to the number and power of the machines on the network. No matter how much memory and other storage is created on the desktop, no matter what information resources are assembled on CD-ROMs, no matter how powerful are the database tools created for the LAN, the desktop imperium will pale and wither before the telecosmic amplitudes of the Internet.
For the last five years, the number of machines on the network has been rising between five and 10 times faster than the number of transistors on a chip. With 1,300 miles of fiber-optic lines being laid every day in the U.S., bandwidth is sure to rise even faster than the number of networked computers (see Forbes ASAP, The Bandwidth Tidal Wave, December 5, 1994). This awesome transition presents a supreme chance for new leadership in developing software focused less on wasting transistors than on wasting bandwidth.
A computer on every desktop and in every home? Information at your fingertips? SQL Server 6.0? My son Richard yawns. Lets face it, Bill, that stuff is yesterday. In the new era, Microsoft can continue to feed on the microcosm. But the leading-edge companies will move to the frontiers of the telecosm, where collectively they will grow far faster than Microsoft.
So, Open the Envelope. Lets Find a New Bill Gates.
Start by adding 100 pounds of extra heft, half a foot of height and two further years of schooling, then make him $ 12.9 billion hungrier. Give him a gargantuan appetite for pizza and Oreos, Bach, newsprint, algorithms, ideas, John Barth, Nabokov, images, Unix code, bandwidth. Give him a nearly unspellable Scandinavian nameMarc Andreessen.
Put him to work for $ 6.85 per hour at Illinoiss National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) writing 3D visualization code on a Silicon Graphics Indy for a Thinking Machine C5 or a Cray YMPI6. Surround him on all sides by the most advanced computers and software in the world, under the leadership of cybernetic visionary Larry Smarr. What will happen next? Boredom, Andreessen replies. Supercomputers, already at the end of their tether, turned out to be underwhelming Unix machines.