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Tech Industry

Perspective: In praise of food fights

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says a smorgasbord of technologies, operating systems and Web services are jostling for market share. But what's needed now might be technology integration, not more technology innovation.

When it comes to technology, there's something surprisingly clarifying about a good food fight.

During the operating systems wars of the early 1990s, for example, a lot of ink got spilled over the relative merits of Windows and OS/2. As we now know, Microsoft prevailed and the desktop world wound up with Windows as the dominant operating system standard. (Though I personally thought users would have been better off had OS/2 won out, I was part of a distinct minority. Fodder for another day.)

But here was the upside to the OS wars: It opened the way for the PC industry to move from 16-bit to 32-bit computing. However rough the transition, it was still a welcome one that proved a boon to millions of computer users around the globe.

"Any time there is an area of technology that attracts attention so that the biggest players are trying to stake out their position early, it generally means we're about to see a lot of time, a lot of mind share and a lot of money spent developing all the supporting infrastructure," says VeriSign CEO, Stratton Sclavos.

This isn't the result of a mannered Hegelian dialectic, where opposing points of view eventually produce a general consensus about how to best proceed. Progress instead follows a donnybrook where flesh-and-blood protagonists, passionate about their respective technologies, beat each other over the head until one cries, "Uncle!" Indeed, from time to time, the computer industry does take on all the trappings of World Wrestling Entertainment.

Progress instead follows a donnybrook where flesh-and-blood protagonists, passionate about their respective technologies, beat each other over the head until one cries, "Uncle!"

Take the late 1980s rift over computing bus architectures. It was a split marked by some fairly interesting work that advanced the state of the art in personal computer design. No such noble objective attended its origins. In fact, this was the result of a squabble between the PC clone makers and IBM, which had gone its own way in 1987 when it debuted a line of computers based on its proprietary Micro Channel Architecture--the principal difference being that the clone makers' contender, EISA (Extended Industry Standard Architecture), was backward-compatible with ISA's AT bus, while MCA was not. It reads like inside baseball nowadays, but it was hell on wheels back then.

But is there any surprise in learning that self-interest propels the computer industry? And just as history doesn't always move in a straight line, not every spat has resulted in moving the ball closer to computing Nirvana.

In the annals of all-time duds, my favorite has to be the Advanced Computing Environment initiative from the early 1990s.

The idea had been to develop a coherent way to let MS-DOS software run on Unix-based RISC systems. On the surface, at least, the ACE consortium had everything in its favor--not the least being the support of many of the leading computing companies of that day, including Microsoft, Compaq, Digital Equipment, NEC and Sony. Lots of money went into the project and lots of press releases got written up. Only one problem: Nobody really cared. In time, ACE eventually flickered out because it wasn't relevant.

I'm not ready to pull a Francis Fukuyama and declare the end of (computer) history--there are just too many prima donnas inhabiting the industry.

These days, competing visions of Web services are firing the latest big debate about what should be. The likes of Microsoft, IBM and Sun Microsystems, among others, are making their pitches to developers and customers--with varying degrees of success.

Watch this one closely, because it is likely to become the most important story of 2003. But the struggle to define the future of this technology is going to be a lot different from prior platform wars. That's because the industry has already reached general agreement on standards, such as SOAP and the accompanying security standards.

I'm not ready to pull a Francis Fukuyama and declare the end of (computer) history--there are just too many prima donnas inhabiting the industry. Unless there's a big surprise out there, though, this is going to be more a question of building the best integrated platform with the best toolset than inventing the coolest way to do an XML message.

Sclavos believes Web services has reached the point where it is in need of technology integration, not more technology innovation.

He just may be right.