Charles Cooper explained in a commentary piece last week why Microsoft's upcoming Longhorn operating system is so important for Microsoft to get right. There's a lot of these kinds of articles now, as the technology press in the runup to major software releases serves the same function as the tense music that you heard when David Hasselhoff tried to defuse a bomb in Knight Rider. Can Microsoft do it? Can Trixie get saved by "the handsome stranger" before the train comes into town and slices her like Parma ham?
Cooper is completely right, though. Longhorn is extremely important to Microsoft, and for reasons related to the structure of software markets in general.
That became apparent to me after I tracked down the research that backed some statements made by Ross Andersen, a computer science professor at Cambridge, at the ACCU conference (the ZDNet article didn't provide a link for it, so here it is). Ross Anderson is a specialist in security engineering, but appears to have an interest in economics--and spikes a lot of his analysis with it.
Software is a market typified by network effects. The more people who use the "network," the more valuable that network becomes. Sticking with the traditional definition of network, Internet protocols are valuable because everyone uses them. Moving into a more abstract definition of networks, Windows is valuable because of compatibility with the wider "Windows product market" all centered around the Windows operating system.
Because of the snowballing value of a product that benefits from network effects, though, there are huge first-mover advantages. Microsoft needs to get Longhorn out sooner rather than later, simply because latecomers have an uphill battle if another vendor has already created the technology around which the market has started to coalesce.
Now, I don't think that Tiger is the Longhorn of PowerPC chips. (That's a topic for a future blog post.) Still, the pressure of a shipping product with some Avalon-like features that has a lot of buzz due to the success of Apple's media efforts and is the only credible alternative to Windows for non-technical users, has to serve as blast of hot air at the feet of sprinting Longhorn developers sequestered in Redmond.
So, there's my scary violin music to add to the tech media's pre-Longhorn symphony.