19 January 2009

The Empire (No Longer) Strikes Back

One of the most worrying moments in recent open source history was when it became clear that Microsoft was determined to wrench away Apache's crown as top Web server. This began in early 2006, and was soon showing dramatic results, as the April 2006 Netcraft survey commented:

This month's survey brings one of the largest one-month swings in the history of the web server market, as Microsoft gains 4.7 percent share while Apache loses 5.9 percent. The shift is driven by changes at domain registrar Go Daddy, which has just migrated more than 3.5 million hostnames from Linux to Windows. Go Daddy, which had been the world's largest Linux host, is now the world's largest Windows Server 2003 host, as measured by hostnames. The company said it will shift a total of 4.4 million hostnames to Windows Server 2003.

This was a staggering shift, and I feared it might presage a real effort by Microsoft to achieve a major PR win. Things reached their nadir in September 2007:

Apache gains over 3 million hostnames, and around 0.9 million active sites this month. But this is not enough to prevent its market share declining closer to the 50% mark, as Microsoft also gained over 3 million hostnames (a large part of which come from MySpace and Live Spaces, both of which use its Internet Information Server.

At that time, the gap between Apache and Microsoft's IIS was just 15%, down, from 50% just a couple of years earlier.

But since then, Apache has gradually pulled ahead; today the gap is around 18% - still far smaller than it once was, but increasing. I feel that the danger has passed, not least because Microsoft has realised that it was fighting yesterday's battles.

Tomorrow's fight will be about owning the cloud, and the main threat there is not so much Apache, as customised versions of open source software, of the kind employed by Google for its vast server farms: in the latest Netscape survey, Google has around 5% of the Web server market. It's still open vs. closed, but not as we know it.

The crucial point is that Microsoft failed to displace Apache, despite its almost limitless resources. This is the crucial lesson for the future, more important than any particular percentage market share: that Microsoft's attacks can - and have been - beaten off.

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