It was seven years ago today when everybody was getting excited about Microsoft's bombastic announcement of Hailstorm, promising that "Hailstorm makes the technology in your life work together on your behalf and under your control."
What was it, really? The idea that the future operating system was on the net, on Microsoft's cloud, and you would log onto everything with Windows Passport and all your stuff would be up there. It turns out: nobody needed this place for all their stuff. And nobody trusted Microsoft with all their stuff. And Hailstorm went away.
I tried to coin a term for the kind of people who invented Hailstorm: architecture astronauts. "That's one sure tip-off to the fact that you're being assaulted by an Architecture Astronaut: the incredible amount of bombast; the heroic, utopian grandiloquence; the boastfulness; the complete lack of reality. And people buy it! The business press goes wild!"
The hallmark of an architecture astronaut is that they don't solve an actual problem... they solve something that appears to be the template of a lot of problems. Or at least, they try. Since 1988 many prominent architecture astronauts have been convinced that the biggest problem to solve is synchronization.
Follow the story, here. I started picking on one company that appeared to be particularly astronautish: Groove, which was trying to rebuild Lotus Notes (a giant synchronization machine) in a peer-to-peer fashion.
Groove had some early success selling secure networks to the military-industrial complex, but didn't make much of a ripple outside that niche. Their real success was in getting bought by Microsoft, which brought Groove's designer and chief architecture-astronaut Ray Ozzie to the role of "Chief Software Architect" at Microsoft, supposedly the technical guy that would keep inventing the future after BillG left so that Steve Ballmer would have some new territory on which to build his next illegal monopoly.
And now Ray Ozzie's big achievement arrives and what is it? (drumroll...) Microsoft Live Mesh. The future of everything. Microsoft is "moving into the cloud."
What's Microsoft Live Mesh?
Hmm, let's see.
"Imagine all your devices—PCs, and soon Macs and mobile phones—working together to give you anywhere access to the information you care about."
Wait a minute. Something smells fishy here. Isn't that exactly what Hailstorm was supposed to be? I smell an architecture astronaut.
And what is this Windows Live Mesh?
It's a way to synchronize files.
Jeez, we've had that forever. When did the first sync web sites start coming out? 1999? There were a million versions. xdrive, mydrive, idrive, youdrive, wealldrive for ice cream. Nobody cared then and nobody cares now, because synchronizing files is just not a killer application. I'm sorry. It seems like it should be. But it's not.
But Windows Live Mesh is not just a way to synchronize files. That's just the sample app. It's a whole goddamned architecture, with an API and developer tools and in insane diagram showing all the nifty layers of acronyms, and it seems like the chief astronauts at Microsoft literally expect this to be their gigantic platform in the sky which will take over when Windows becomes irrelevant on the desktop. And synchronizing files is supposed to be, like, the equivalent of Microsoft Write on Windows 1.0.
It's Groove, rewritten from scratch, one more time. Ray Ozzie just can't stop rewriting this damn app, again and again and again, and taking 5-7 years each time.
And the fact that customers never asked for this feature and none of the earlier versions really took off as huge platforms doesn't stop him.
How on earth does Microsoft continue to pour massive resources into building the same frigging synchronization platforms again and again? Damn, they just finished building something called Windows Live FolderShare and I haven't exactly noticed a stampede to that. I'll bet you've never even heard of it. The 3,398th web site that lets you upload and download files to a place on the Internet. I'm so excited I might just die.
I shouldn't really care. What Microsoft's shareholders want to waste their money building, instead of earning nice dividends from two or three fabulous monopolies, is no business of mine. I'm not a shareholder. It sort of bothers me, intellectually, that there are these people running around acting like they're building the next great thing who keep serving us the same exact TV dinner that I didn't want on Sunday night, and I didn't want it when you tried to serve it again Monday night, and you crunched it up and mixed in some cheese and I didn't eat that Tuesday night, and here it is Wednesday and you've rebuilt the whole goddamn TV dinner industry from the ground up and you're giving me 1955 salisbury steak that I just DON'T WANT. What is it going to take for you to get the message that customers don't want the things that architecture astronauts just love to build. The people? They love twitter. And flickr and delicious and picasa and tripit and ebay and a million other fun things, which they do want, and this so called synchronization problem is just not an actual problem, it's a fun programming exercise that you're doing because it's just hard enough to be interesting but not so hard that you can't figure it out.
Why I really care is that Microsoft is vacuuming up way too many programmers. Between Microsoft, with their shady recruiters making unethical exploding offers to unsuspecting college students, and Google (you're on my radar) paying untenable salaries to kids with more ultimate frisbee experience than Python, whose main job will be to play foosball in the googleplex and walk around trying to get someone...anyone...to come see the demo code they've just written with their "20% time," doing some kind of, let me guess, cloud-based synchronization... between Microsoft and Google the starting salary for a smart CS grad is inching dangerously close to six figures and these smart kids, the cream of our universities, are working on hopeless and useless architecture astronomy because these companies are like cancers, driven to grow at all cost, even though they can't think of a single useful thing to build for us, but they need another 3000-4000 comp sci grads next week. And dammit foosball doesn't play itself.
You’re reading Joel on Software, stuffed with years and years of completely raving mad articles about software development, managing software teams, designing user interfaces, running successful software companies, and rubber duckies.
I’m Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Fog Creek Software, a New York company that proves that you can treat programmers well and still be highly profitable. Programmers get private offices, free lunch, and work 40 hours a week. Customers only pay for software if they’re delighted. We make Trello, insanely simple project management, FogBugz, an enlightened bug tracker designed to help great teams develop brilliant software, and Kiln, which simplifies source control. I’m also the co-founder and CEO of Stack Exchange. More about me.