David Heinemeier Hansson

January 17, 2024

Microsoft taught Apple nothing

Apple is protecting its App Store racket with the same kind of indignant entitlement that characterized Microsoft during its darkest monopoly days. They’re in full “cut off the air supply” mode in Cupertino, pursuing Epic for a $73m legal bill in a lawsuit they partially lost. But the red mist of vindictiveness is blinding Apple’s view of history, and making them repeat the mistakes it took Microsoft two decades to undo.

It’s the ultimate monopoly irony too. Apple owes its entire modern existence to the fact that the DOJ was breathing down Microsoft’s neck in the late 90s. This legal threat made Microsoft desperate to prop up a semi-credible alternative to their Windows and Office monopolies, and Apple fit the bill perfectly. A basket case of a company, with an irrelevant, shrinking marketshare, in dire need of a lifeline.

So in 1997, Microsoft invested $150m into Apple, and promised to bring Office and Internet Explorer to the Mac. Back then, these were crucial monopolies without which any platform would struggle. This saved Apple, but it didn’t save Microsoft.

In Redmond, they were still bent on total domination. At the height of its monopoly power over the internet, Microsoft had an incredible 94% marketshare. It used this marketshare to seriously slow down the evolution of the internet, as it continued to perceive it as a threat to the Windows and Office cash cows. And it worked. They really did slow down the evolution of the internet, and even disbanded the IE team, once total domination was assured.

But Microsoft’s brutish tactics also managed to turn an entire generation of developers against them. And the bill for that didn’t come due until Windows Phone. Nobody, and I mean nobody, wanted to lift a finger to help Microsoft gain a foothold in mobile. The wounds from the late 90s and early 2000s were still fresh in many developers minds. So many cheered as Apple went from underdog, favored by developers for their embrace of Unix roots in their operating system, to the dominant player on a new platform.

Microsoft has had to work hard to undo that poisoned relationship ever since, and under Satya Nadella, seems to have broadly succeeded in that mission. Microsoft is no longer developer’s enemy #1, Apple is. 

Now that’s not a universal statement, just like it wasn’t for Microsoft. There are hardcore Apple stans who will defend every atrocious monopoly abuse they commit, just like there were hardcore Microsoft stans doing the same in 2000. But the vibe has swapped. I don’t know of many developers brewing a burning hatred for Microsoft these days, but I know plenty of developers who feel like that about Apple.

Apple would be wise to study the long arc of Microsoft’s history. Learn that you can win the battle, say, against Epic, and end up losing the war for the hearts and minds of developers. And that while the price for that loss lags beyond the current platform, it’ll eventually come due, and they’ll rue the day they chose this wretched path.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.