Friday, 3 August 2012

Horses That Run...

...are the ones that aren't starved.

The BBC recently linked to an article on PowerPoint's 25th anniversary. I'd always thought it was a Windows app until now, but actually it was Mac about 6 years before it made it to Windows. Suddenly that made Powerpoint about 10x more interesting than I'd ever considered so I did a bit of searching and found a book called Sweating Bullets.

The free google book edition leaves out quite a bit, but I was mostly interested in the history up until the first release: the kind of development difficulties Forethought had working on early Macs (they targetted the 512Kb Mac) and the online book covers that quite nicely.

Actually most of the book is about the marketing of Powerpoint: why the concept was such a hard sell and Robert Gaskins, the project manager, deserves a lot of credit for his persistence. But the thing I found most interesting was their whole perspective on the development platform.

This is how it goes. They started work on Powerpoint in late 1984 / early 1985 after spending 18 wasted months working on a PC-based graphical predecessor that included an operating system (because graphics OSs weren't really available by then). Now, Windows 1.0 had kinda just been released, but the Mac had been around for 18 months. However, Gaskins initially discounted the Mac version and planned all the design and development for Windows. It was only when he found out that the current state of Windows in 1985 was:
  1. Unusable, and
  2. Years away from being useful (in fact, about 6 years, but they didn't know that then); and
  3. Not even Microsoft were planning to release practical graphical apps for Windows until years after their Mac versions of e.g. Word and Excel.
That they decided (grudgingly) to go with the Mac version first. When they did, they found that with the exception of having to run the development tools on Lisa its predecessor, not only was the Mac wonderful to use even in 1985, but that its design gave it ample performance and software components to complete both the first plus second versions of Powerpoint with less than 1/3 of the effort it took to merely port it to Windows when that day finally came.

What this really shows is how mindshare affects business decisions; in this case Windows had already won in the minds of software developers even though it was a complete train crash at the time - the quality and capability of an existing competitor wasn't even a consideration until the alternative was known to be infeasible.. and even then the Mac version (that saved their company) was really only developed in order to springboard their way to Windows.

It's not the way I think, I'd sooner plug quality and good ideas even if they're not going to be the obvious winners - after all, any horse can win if you starve the rest - it's just not something to be proud of. So it's not surprising then that Apple found it so hard to make headway for the first 20 years and being caught out by the Windows mindshare effect in this case was a real surprise for me!