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Developers feel the squeeze

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper wonders whether the deck has been permanently stacked in favor of the Microsofts and Oracles, leaving independents to play pilot fish.

Six years into the Internet revolution, is it already over?

History would suggest otherwise. Every time the conventional wisdom has it that we've hit the technology wall, some bright bulb pops up with an idea that shatters the reigning complacency and sets off a mad scramble of innovation. So there's still room for some optimism.

Or, at least, there is in theory. I desperately want to believe in a future described by MIT professor Michael Dertouzos, where human-centered computing systems will serve people rather than the other way around. One would hate to believe that 10 years from now, we will still need to hit Ctrl-Alt-Delete to access temperamental electronic boxes that more often than not control us more than we control them.

All this presupposes that a burst of creativity is going to come to the fore and pave the way for us to reach this cyber promised land. The problem (uh oh, here comes the cantankerous rant) is that the deck is stacked so much in favor of the big guys that the smaller start-ups and independent software developers are in increasing danger of getting shut out of the game.

The deck is stacked so much in favor of the big guys that the smaller start-ups and independent software developers are in increasing danger of getting shut out of the game. In the aftermath of the dot-com implosion and the accelerating cycle of company consolidation, the constellation of power in the software industry is more rigid than at any time in the recent past. That hardly augurs well for the future of innovation, because the good stuff in the computer industry usually percolates up, not down. Unfortunately, the outsized influence wielded by the big software concerns means the voices of independent developers are getting harder and harder to hear.

There are a couple of reasons why this is unlikely to change in the near term.

One is that the Microsofts, SAPs and Oracles of the world simply wield bigger sticks. What they do or say has more immediate weight than does Joe Schmoe, developer extraordinaire from downtown Podunk. The result is that the Joe Schmoes of the world are far less likely to get as much attention from the press or from distributors.

Is it fair? Hardly. Is it good? No, it stinks. But this is the way things have turned out.

The commercial emergence of the Internet was supposed to help level that power imbalance--bits are bits and they're all equal in cyberspace, and all that. It hasn't really worked out that way. The standards bodies kowtow to the interests of the big companies, and the independents are presented with faits accompli.

The commercial emergence of the Internet was supposed to help level the power imbalance...It hasn't really worked out that way. And forget about getting shelf space at retail. The stores were locked up by the majors years ago. Internet distribution remains an option, but how many small software outfits have struck it rich selling only downloads? If anything, it's harder making it now than it was in the early 1980s, when many of today's software moguls were just starting out.

A young Philippe Kahn generated a ton of interest in his upstart Borland International with a funky mail-order advertisement for his Turbo Pascal programming language. The buzz led to sales, and that opened doors to distribution deals, and away he went.

But that was a veritable eternity ago. Back then, Microsoft was just a tools company with ambitions. Companies like Lotus and Ashton-Tate and MultiMate and WordStar and WordPerfect were fighting tooth and nail to out-innovate each other in a desperate fight for customers' attention.

A lot of the software wasn't very good, though much of it indeed was. And it got better in time because people couldn't afford to rest on their laurels. Barriers to entry were low, and anybody with the proper quotients of talent and moxie could try their hand.

But those Wild West days are over. Many smaller third-party software companies have long since resigned themselves to playing the role of pilot fish, knowing head-to-head competition would mean suicide.

As for the remaining independents still fighting the good fight? They need a lot of guts. Or a lot of hope. Or both.

Over the course of the year, CNET News.com plans to run occasional Perspectives columns by small developers. We'd like your take on the issues and challenges. Maybe the next big wave of innovation is still around the corner. Let us know. You can write to me directly at charles.cooper@cnet.com. I'd like to hear from you.