Changing Platforms

In the last half-dozen years one of the most remarkable things to happen in the world of software development is the transformation of the development platform of choice.

Every modern development shop I visit these days has programmers using a Unix-variant operating system. This is unsurprising, as Unix is the only OS really developed by and for programmers. What is surprising, nay, astonishing, is that this Unix is running on Apple Macintosh computers. Apple has never had much clout in the development community, and serious business application programmers have, for the past 25 years, used PCs running MSWindows, or its predecessor, MSDOS.

Pair programming on a Mac

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on how this came to be. I believe that Microsoft first grabbed the developer market because they understood, respected, and cared for developers. They have lost that market because they apparently have forgotten those values and their concomitant skills.

In January 2000, Bill Gates stepped down as president of Microsoft, and Steve Ballmer took his place. Ballmer was then, and is still, a legendary salesman, a brilliant businessman, and he possesses abundant force of will. But Steve never really understood the pivotal role programmers played in the tectonic market shifts the way Bill did.

By the late 1990s, the growth of the Internet, the inevitable progression of Moore’s Law, and the commoditization of manufacturing moved the central mass of the marketplace away from the office desktop and towards the consumer and home computing.

So by the end of the oughts, a hat trick of forces has dethroned the development platform king. Ballmer’s lack of focus on developers, the easy availability of open-source Unix, and Steve Jobs’ prescient attention on the consumer, have combined to attract multitudes of programmers to a most unlikely platform.

Ballmer the salesman, in the meantime, has been trying aggressively (does Ballmer know any other way?) to penetrate the consumer market, but here he is up against Apple’s 30-year head start. Steve Jobs’ elevation of design and user experience above that of engineering is paying off. Microsoft can employ thousands of UX designers, but they will never have the juice to dethrone the engineering culture in Redmond.

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