Are you running GNU/Linux at home, at work, or at school? Have you ever developed a piece of free software, or even just submitted a patch? If so, you may be a target in the opening skirmishes of a so far undeclared war.
A well known software house based in the outskirts of Seattle, WA recently has begun to take Free Software seriously. They have an enormous number of talented coders and various other "smart people" © working to further their company's interests. Most importantly, they have a marketing savvy that surpasses anything else in the industry. They also happen to have several billion dollars accumulating interest in the bank and are a burgeoning content provider. Sidewalk, Hotmail, Link Exchange, MSN, MSNBC, and a partnership with AT&T to put their software into potentially millions of more homes, are all a growing part of their new diversification.
This software company, Microsoft also has cornered the PC Desktop market, Office Productivity market, and is moving into the high end enterprise market. They have an obligation to their shareholders and their employees to keep their stunning growth and profitability moving constantly forward.
The only way they can do this is to expand into new markets as well as maintaining the dominant share of their previously "owned" markets. Microsoft's tactics such as "embrace and extend" are already well known, and they have been tremendously successful against a wide range of companies and products.
Although Free software has been around for quite some time, only recently has the software industry awaken to the new possibilities and pitfalls that open source brings to business. The last time Microsoft was running around this scared was during the Netscape and Java hypes. We are currently smack dab in the middle of the Linux hype, with no end in sight. Make no mistake that Microsoft would love to smack down Linux and the hype surrounding it. I'll examine some basic strategies Microsoft appears to be developing above and beyond the Halloween documents.
Just when Microsoft thought that Unix was finally dead and buried, all these free *NIX clones spring into popularity over the Internet. Standard MS stratagems are enacted and FUD (Fear Uncertainty Doubt) was spread through their standard trade press channels.
Microsoft then moved on to the next phase. We're all now familiar with the so called Mindcraft Fiasco. The Linux community responded with its characteristic speed and has patched some of the flaws pointed out in the benchmark as well as educating the press about the problems with the benchmarks in the first place.
The tentacles of Microsoft are now grabbing on to other tactics. Ever since the Halloween documents they have been applying the philosophy of the Chinese General Sun Tzu who said:
"If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle."
The Free Software community is currently about on par with Microsoft on knowing themselves and their "enemy". However, with the advent of Microsoft starting an anti-Linux group, that soon may be changing.
By definition, the Free Software community is completely open and transparent. It's obvious from Halloween, that MS employees are monitoring newsgroups and development mailing lists in order to get to know their "enemy". It should be no surprise that Microsoft was the number one corporate visitor at linux.com.
Microsoft will always know more about our strategies and processes than we will know about them. However, the speed at which things change in our community will keep Microsoft always scrambling to keep abreast. Our sheer numbers will swamp the 30-50 employees Microsoft has analyzing us.
Our community must respond, and has responded magnificently to the thrusts of Microsoft's blows. The way in which we flipped both MS and Mindcraft onto their backs was straight out of a judo textbook. Sun Tzu would have said:
"If, on the other hand, in the midst of difficulties we are always ready to seize an advantage, we may extricate ourselves from misfortune."
In judo, this is known as Ato-no-sen or initiative in defense. The defender (linux) reacts the the opponent (Microsoft) as soon as an inkling of the attacker's strategy becomes apparent. The intent is to avoid the attack before it hits and immediately launch a counter-offensive before the attacker has a chance to recoup.
Now, lets look at some of the attacks Microsoft is launching upon us and examine some potential counter-attacks. Free software is most threatening to Microsoft in the enterprise role at the moment, but increasingly is moving towards the desktop and embedded markets.
Halloween described the techniques that MS would use to neutralize Free Software in the server market by de-commoditizing protocols and so on. We've got the advantage of having greater than %50 of the web server market, and tools like PHP3 are keeping us ahead. However, we've seen how Netscape was brought down from the top of their respective hill; it would be folly, to believe we are immune.
Microsoft recently committed themselves to further the Win32 port of Perl. This accomplishes two things in one master stroke. They increase the functionality of their server platform, and give themselves the choice of either splintering Perl into something proprietary or they can release the changes made and be praised by the press as supporting this "open source" thing. Absolutely brilliant! Look for them to exploit more free software under liberal licensing.
They can also begin to release some of their toys from their research labs. Expect to see a "Microsoft Public License" soon, just don't be surprised if it doesn't meet the Open Source Definition. This will help to stave off the exodus of developers into the open source folds. The Free Software environment is extremely developer friendly and Microsoft knows that much of their gain in the PC market was due to being friendly to third party software. They are already cozying up to the Open Source initiative in preparation, as seen by the recent Eric Raymond (ESR) speaking invitation.
This will ultimately give Microsoft some credibility if they are ever forced by market conditions to support open source more fully. They want to remain as nimble as an 800lb gorilla can. I imagine a lot was learned after they nearly missed the Internet boat back in 1994-95. Don't expect them to be that blind this time around. There is a lot of money at stake.
There has been much speculation on Microsoft putting out a Linux distribution with a proprietary Win32 layer built on top. This would have the effect of taking some wind out of the Redhat and VA Research sails. If Microsoft could get the DOJ off their backs long enough to do this, this would be a devastating blow. Rumours are still flying on the fabled Linux Office Port. The Win32 layer for Unix already exists, and it wouldn't take long for MS Linux to spring from the bowels of the Redmond Campus.
However, I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that instead of slapping together a Linux distribution they could just as easily put out MS BSD. Think about the advantages for one moment. No so called "GPL Virus" to contaminate any of Microsoft's crown jewels, a strong developers base, binary compatibility with Linux, superior networking, and it can be modified internally without having to release any source code back. Besides, we all know that Microsoft loves to steal great ideas from Apple, right? I suspect that Microsoft would probably gravitate towards FreeBSD as it is currently the most optimized on the x86 platform.
Using a BSD variant would potentially create a schism in the free software community. The BSD camp would feel gratified that their code was being used by Microsoft, while the GPL camp would probably look on the whole event in horror. Perhaps later, Microsoft could strike back at Intel for their investments in Redhat with a Microsoft BSD for the Compaq Alpha. It's too difficult to say without knowing more about the internal relationship between Intel and Microsoft.
Nice GUI tools that integrated well with Windows 2000 would increase the market value of the BSD variant. Perhaps Microsoft could even give away their Unix and sell the developer tools. It's way too early to predict.
How can we defend against being overrun with our own tools? Actually, I believe we should encourage it. Yes, thats right I think ultimately if Microsoft adopts any of the free Unices we have already won. I can't imagine anyone using a MS Unix not downloading and compiling all the free software out there. No matter how much MS corrupts their Unix, someone will find a way to port GCC and Bash and get everything else up and running. Eventually those running MS BSD will be swayed over to a completely Free system and we'll have ourselves a convert.
Again General Tzu might say:
To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.
The coming months will be extremely interesting as we see Gnome and KDE mature and integrate more fully together. Linux will really begin to storm against Microsoft's hallowed desktop monopoly and take away share from WinCE simultaneously. We'll also see greater penetration of gaming and other commercial software that will drive linux's market share even higher.
The Linux community needs to understand that Microsoft is just another proprietary commercial software company. Frankly, most other companies would be acting just as bad or worse in the same situation. There are many talented Microsoft employees that I would love to see working on free software. IBM has made the transition from being the big bad monopolist to being welcomed into our community. I call on Microsoft to do the same.
Unfortunately for many, Microsoft will always be around. Even if Linux World Domination takes hold, Microsoft will be going strong with all their investments in content and information pipes. If things get really bad, we'll see them controlling the content with proprietary Microsoft only software. Internet Explorer only Hotmail anyone? WinCE only Disney channel?
On the same token, Linux will never die. Whether or not we achieve world domination, as long as even one long hair hacker that espouses software freedom and helping your neighbor exists it will continue to evolve and grow. We live in very interesting times, folks. --mim
About the author:
Matt I. Michie is a struggling computer science student in New Mexico who has been a linux advocate for more than three years. He has a lot more to write about the upcoming battle between Microsoft and Free software, but wants to get some peer review on what he has so far. He's highly anticipating all the flames on his poor grammar and spelling that completely ignore the gist of the editorial (G).