Microsoft, Open Source, The American Way, Litigation, Innovation, & Imitation
March 2nd, 2001

In 1999, I wrote a piece about Innovation and Microsoft. I talked about how Microsoft was repeating the phrase "innovation instead of litigation" like a desperate mantra. I knew the purpose of this incredible marketing and PR effort was to say it so many times in so many places that others would begin to repeat it. Those who repeated it might say it in such a way that is just as devoid of meaning as it is when Microsoft says it, but they are repeating it, and that's all the folks in Redmond really needed. For instance, our fancy new president quickly took up the mantra when asked by a reporter during the presidential campaign where he stood on the Microsoft antitrust trial. Like a parrot performing right on cue, he chimed "I prefer innovation to litigation."

Since then, other politicians who mistakenly feel they are protecting free enterprise have likewise used that same disgusting phrase. "We would like to see innovation instead of litigation" It sickens me. Not the phrase itself, mind you, for I too prefer innovation to litigation. It is the idea of this magnificent concept being applied to Microsoft that twists my stomach into a Gordian Knot of despair. The company has never really been innovative in any way that I can think of whatsoever. OK, maybe Bob, but we knew how well that worked out. Instead, the company has imitated, borrowed, and bought every product they have.

There were lots of similar things I wanted to say in that 1999 column, but I never really found the words. Fortunately Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU Project did so in a piece published by ZDNet yesterday. That editorial discusses the recent attack by Microsoft executive Jim Allchin on the open source movement. That exec said the open source movement was contrary to The American Way because it somehow threatens Intellectual Property and proprietary software. The Salon article linked above offers very good coverage of this event. Microsoft quickly moved to say it was only specific portions of the GNU license often used by the Open Source movement that was the real communist culprit and that their man Mr. Allchin was being misunderstood, but they are patently, and I dare say deliberately, wrong.

Let me quote the excellent words from Mr. Stallman:

Microsoft surely would like to have the benefit of our code without the responsibilities. But it has another, more specific purpose in attacking the GNU GPL. Microsoft is known generally for imitation rather than innovation. When Microsoft does something new, its purpose is strategic--not to improve computing for its users, but to close off alternatives for them.

Microsoft uses an anticompetitive strategy called "embrace and extend". This means they start with the technology others are using, add a minor wrinkle which is secret so that nobody else can imitate it, then use that secret wrinkle so that only Microsoft software can communicate with other Microsoft software. In some cases, this makes it hard for you to use a non-Microsoft program when others you work with use a Microsoft program. In other cases, this makes it hard for you to use a non-Microsoft program for job A if you use a Microsoft program for job B. Either way, "embrace and extend" magnifies the effect of Microsoft's market power.

This hits the head so squarely on the head, it cuts right to the heart of the way Microsoft does business. Most of his piece deals more with the motives of the GNU Project, but I found the two paragraphs I quoted to be so beautifully poignant that it smacked me upside the head.

I am one of the most hard core capitalists you will ever read in the Mac Web, and a great fan and admirer of the Mac Business Unit of Microsoft too. I am also staunchly for free enterprise, free markets, and the opportunity to pursue your dreams. Hell, if it wasn't for all of those things, The Mac Observer wouldn't exist. Our efforts are all the pursuit of one dream or another by our entire, remarkably talented staff, and we have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps on the merits of our work. I find it hard to understand how Microsoft can dare call the GNU license to be un-American. In fact, I specifically say that the GNU GPL terms, the Open Source movement, and all the associated efforts are the very essence of The American Way because they are entirely voluntary.

It is with loathing and disgust that I hear Microsoft shift their FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, & Doubt) campaign on the Open Source movement into high gear and sully the concept of "The American Way" at the same time. Indeed, it is Microsoft that seeks to stymie the forces of the free market at every turn lest their unearned market share be threatened. A culture of paranoia predominates at Microsoft (according to second hand observation, to be sure) and they seem to see any market challenger as a destroyer who must in turn be destroyed at any cost by any means possible. If the only weapons they used in their arsenal of attack and defense was the merits of their products and the advertisement of those same merits, I would say their market share and monopoly power in the OS business was well earned. As it is, this is the farthest thing from the truth. Microsoft has instead used the results of some brilliant deal making on the part of Bill Gates some 20 years ago to leverage their power from one market to another. Sure, they see defeat once in a while, like in the handheld market where they have gotten their proverbial rear-ends kicked by the good folks at Palm every time they have thrown some new derivative technology into the ring. But, the monies earned from Windows and Office will continue to fund their attempts to leverage their monopolies into other markets for as long as those effective monopolies last.

In other words, it is only these monopoly powers and the money earned from them that allows them to do things like give there browser away, therefore ensuring the defeat of Netscape which had derived a substantial percentage of their income from the sale of their Navigator product line before they too had to make it free to try and keep their own dominant market share in the browser market. It is those monies that made it possible for them to buy out retail shelf space from other word processors back when there was still competition in that market. It is those monies that allow Microsoft to continue to hurl massive resources at the handheld/server/Java/ISP/Internet-portal/gaming console markets. This is the essence of the antitrust laws from the way I understand it, but I could be wrong; it looks like they will be winning their appeal in their antitrust trial in one form or another.

In the meanwhile, the McCarthy seeds of the un-American label have now been planted in the Open Source movement. Fertilized with money and gentle prodding, there is no doubt that this concept will sprout anew at some point. Microsoft may have tried to ameliorate that exec's comments, but I see the whole thing as having been orchestrated. Microsoft needed the un-American label planted in the minds of America, and this poor schmuck was no doubt chosen by lottery to deliver it. You can strike the words from the record, but the jury has still heard them. Mission accomplished. I have little doubt that we will hear one politician or another suggest that Congress investigate the Open Source movement at some time or another. Whether or not that happens or, if it does happen, whether or not it goes anywhere, that FUD factor has been planted, and that will take its toll in one way or another. Microsoft wins again, and the merits of their products once again had nothing to do with their victory. It disgusts me.