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The Back Page
by Bryan Chaffin

Microsoft Sinks To New Low
May 4th, 2001

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about Microsoft exec Jim Allchin saying that Open Source Software (OSS) was a threat to intellectual property and the American Way of Life. Microsoft later amended Mr. Allchin's comments in a statement to the press saying that it wasn't the Open Source movement per se that they had a problem with, it was just that Marxist-Leninist tool, the GNU GPL license.

A little background: the GNU GPL is a public license under which developers can publish their code. I am simplifying here, but the license stipulates that the source code must be made available with the product, and if anyone else uses that code, the license says that they too must release their own code under the GNU GPL. And so on. Notice the self perpetuating aspect of this, but notice too that all you have to do to avoid supposed GNU GPL tyranny is to write your own code. There is no direct threat to intellectual property in this model by any stretch of the imagination.

In that earlier column, I said that Microsoft was merely floating a trial balloon for a strategy they had perfected with the "Freedom to Innovate" campaign. Unfortunately, it seems as if I was right; the comments from Mr. Allchin were merely the opening salvo in a FUD campaign (Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt) on OSS and the new war began yesterday. Having found success with the "if we say it, they will repeat it" strategy, Microsoft is ready to try it again by attempting to paint OSS developers as communists, socialists, and leftist leaning enemies of capitalism, apple pie, and freedom. They won't actually use those words, however. Their tactics are to use innuendo ("This viral aspect of GPL poses a threat to the intellectual property of any organization making use of it."), and out and out lies (the community of core Linux developers only numbers in the hundreds) to plant FUD in the minds of as many people as they can. They don't have to be proven right or wrong, they just have to sew the seeds of distrust.

They are also using a new derivative of their Embrace and Extend strategy that has also worked so well for them for years. The company has introduced a "rival strategy" to Open Source development called Shared Source. In this model, the company sells the right for its customers to have access to Windows source code and use it for their own custom apps, while Microsoft retains all rights to their own code. There is nothing wrong with that, and that's the rub. Microsoft is free to do as they want, but so is everyone else that is not boxed in by a company with monopoly power. OSS doesn't directly threaten Microsoft in any way because they simply never have to use any GPL licensed code. Any company that avoids that path is also safe from having to turn over their own intellectual property to the masses. In other words, the only way OSS can ever "threaten" Microsoft is if people *choose* to start using Open Source products instead of paying Microsoft for their proprietary ones. That's not un-American, that's the essence of competition. OSS can only gain momentum if people adopt the model and the products. If you don't want to be saddled with GNU GPL restrictions, write your own code. Microsoft warns us of the dangers to profits and intellectual property, but if companies go out of business because they didn't retain their "crown jewels of intellectual property" then there is simply one less OSS competitor for Microsoft. This is Capitalism 101.

Furthermore, if the idea of Intellectual Property itself is defeated in the open market through competition, then that means that Intellectual Property has outlived its usefulness. Again, that's the essence of capitalism, competition, and the free markets. Microsoft's claim to the contrary are disingenuous, as well as ethically and morally bankrupt.

This kind of out and out crap may work with politicians who can't possibly take the time to understand technology like those who are actually working in the industry. It may even work with the legions of Wintel drones that inhabit IT desks everywhere. It won't work with those that actually understand the issue, however. Take Big Blue. IBM happens to have thrown its enormous weight behind Linux. The company is pursuing a mixed strategy of proprietary solutions (like they have always had) and a separate Linux strategy. They have thrown millions of dollars behind this effort, including a major TV campaign and some sidewalk vandalism. Other than the graffiti-thing, the company knows what it is doing and has scoffed at MS's OSS line in the sand. From a NewsFactor report:

Said IBM vice president Irving Wladawsky-Berger: "If we thought [GPL] was a trap, we wouldn't be doing it -- and as you know, we have a lot of lawyers."

This is where I think that Microsoft is going to lose this battle. For one thing, they are wrong, for another they are fighting a different battle than the ones they have fought in the past. The company is used to hoodwinking pinheads. IBM got duped into a deal with Microsoft once before that left Bill Gates in charge of the computing industry, and they are not going to be so easily fooled again. IBM is being careful, and they are out to profit off of OSS. Don't forget that IBM's sales dwarf Microsoft's, though their profits are on a par due to Microsoft's much higher gross margins. Oracle, the #2 software maker, is also throwing its lot in with the Open Source movement with their own mixed strategy. Even Apple dabbles in OSS with its own mixed strategy that allows the company to have the best of both worlds. There is more than enough room in the market for OSS and closed systems.

Microsoft's attacks on Open Source smack of desperation. What I really don't understand is just why Microsoft is so freakin' scared of what they characterize as a few hundred core developers? Are those developers so good that they can out-code Microsoft's army of over one million coders? That sort of dichotomy is all over the company's rhetoric. On the one hand, OSS should be avoided because of the inherent dangers embodied in its lack of structure. Businesses can't trust it, there aren't enough developers, and you can't count on the developers that are there. On the other hand, this rough collection of leftist hooligans somehow represents a threat to Microsoft. Which is it?

Microsoft makes some good products. At least their Mac Business Unit does. Why not have the company focus on making their products so good that a supposedly rag-tag collection of socialist misfits could never hope to match it? Microsoft's main business strength is getting people who need to have the stability and service that M$ represents to buy their products. It is my opinion that OSS is not likely to offer any kind of real threat to that market segment.

I think this is really just a reflection of Bill Gates' overwhelming need to win all the marbles in every game he plays. It is not enough that his company be the biggest or best, it must be *all*. As I have said in the past, if they could achieve being *all* by simply making the best products, I would be among their most ardent fans. As it is, we get things like this latest smear campaign on OSS. "If we can't beat them in the open market, let's try and taint their image." It's sad, disgusting, pathetic, and a new low for a company that has reached very few highs.


began using Apple computers in 1983 in a high school BASIC programming class. He started using Macs in 1990 when the Kinko's guy taught him how to use Aldus PageMaker, finally buying a Power Computing Power 100 in 1995. Today, Bryan is the Editor of The Mac Observer, and has contributed to the print versions of MacAddict and MacFormat (UK).

You can send your comments directly to him, or you can also post your comments below.

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