Editor 10-June-00

Microsoft Strikes Against Linux

The assault against Linux and Open Source software has begun. Microsoft's early moves are well aimed, but may cut both ways.




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I have occasionally expressed, in on-line forums, the opinion that Microsoft will attack Linux, and those attacks will have significant impact. Linux enthusiasts have countered that I am unable to see that Microsoft has no leverage against Linux and that no such attack could have any significance against Linux.

This is certainly true for a few Linux enthusiasts who would welcome Linux return to "a small circle of friends", but I think Microsoft's patent attack will affect even some of them. I think most in today's Linux community want Linux to expand within commercial enterprises, and from that viewpoint Microsoft's attacks will definitely have impact. How significant that impact will be is the question.

Now free from the constraints of the anti-trust trial (they've blown it beyond recovery), Microsoft is moving on several fronts to try to slow the rise of Linux (and BeOS, which is not Open Source, but also a danger to their monopoly). During the trial, they had to go easy because Linux and BeOS were all they could point to as competitors. Now the gloves come off and they'll try to kill them both.

Microsoft has already deployed most of their traditional attack methods against Linux, and two new methods (patents, restricting CD-ROMS). Here is a rundown.

Method #1 - FUD. "Fear Uncertainty and Doubt" was a tool brandished by IBM with great success - until the Department of Justice brought Big Blue under control. FUD is now Microsoft's tool of first resort.

Much that Microsoft has said about Linux (as with what they have said about Novell) is just plain untrue, but most people don't know it's untrue. Other items, such as their highly publicized performance benchmarks against Linux, and "hack this" NT server episode (only port 80 was open), are true, but only for narrow and unrealistic conditions.

The Linux community has proven highly effective at getting the truth out, but Microsoft FUD will be believed by many PHBs who have a limited (and highly filtered) range of input sources. This will slow Linux adoption by business, but FUD certainly can't kill Linux, because it can't choke the revenue stream of something that doesn't depend on a revenue stream. If Microsoft is caught out on too many obvious lies, their FUD campaign could backfire as more people hold them up to ridicule and more cartoonists make fun of them.

Method #2 - patents. Microsoft has been filing a lot of software patents that have been described as ranging from "totally bogus" to "hopelessly inane". Our patent office hasn't a clue - still steeped in such technologies as automatic hat tipping mechanisms (yes, that's a real patent) and lead lined bras and girdles (to protect one's modesty from X-rays) they are totally lost with software - so they just hand out software patents to anyone who asks for one.

Commercially, most of Microsoft's patents would be easily overturned as too vague or involving prior art, but that's not the point. The point is that Open Source software developers don't have much money, so Microsoft can, and already has, shut down a development project with a single phone call from their legal department. A recent case is Virtual Dub (an Open Source product for Windows). Commentary at Advogato.org.

The patent move has a significant weakness. These are U.S. patents, and not valid in other countries, nor are they likely to be filed in other countries (for fear of uncontrollable laughter). Linux development is international, and development of code threatened by Microsoft patents is already being moved out of the U.S.. Within the U.S, the Open Source movement will be dependent on commercial companies breaking the patents.

Method #3 - forbidding distribution of Windows CD-ROMS. As of April, 2000, No computer company with a Windows contract is allowed to provide Windows CD-ROMs to their customers. According to Microsoft, this move is to "reduce piracy", but anyone who can think logically sees this move will substantially increase piracy.

The main reason for this move is to get around a court defeat they suffered in Germany on "unbundling", but another admitted reason is to prevent people from trying other operating systems, specifically Linux and BeOS. As long as the computer owner has a Windows CD-ROM, s/he can try other operating systems with little risk, because Windows can easily be reloaded. Without the CD-ROM, there is no easy return.

You will be hurt by this policy, even if you don't intend to run anything but Windows. Check our news item No More Windows CD-ROMs for the gory details.

The downside of this policy is that it pisses off Windows users. Microsoft could care less, they are confident most users won't try anything else no matter how badly Microsoft abuses them. In Microsoft's own words, "They aren't going to like it, but that's the way it's going to be". The objective is to stop the few adventurous users, because they could cause a crack in the home market.

Method #4 - Corruption of Open Standards. This is one of the most dangerous of Microsoft's avenues of attack. "Embrace, Extend, Exterminate" has worked all too well in the past. This method was advocated by Microsoft personnel in the Halloween Documents. Windows 2000 is particularly designed to leverage corrupted Internet standards to force businesses to install Windows 2000 servers in places where existing or less expensive servers would be preferred. You will find details in our article on Adopting Windows 2000.

Regardless of its past success, this avenue of attack is now meeting strong resistance. There has been a lot of outcry over Microsoft's corruption of the Kerberos standard, and corruption of other standards has caused IBM to issue a total ban on Windows 2000 computers being attached to its production networks worldwide. The risk to Microsoft is that Windows 2000 may be rejected in places it would otherwise have been accepted without much thought.

Method #5 - Cost. Microsoft can't go lower than free? Oh yes they can. Microsoft has never been above bribing people to use their products instead of a better product. They are now starting a major operation to pay e-commerce developers to use only Microsoft products (which produce Web sites that work right only for Windows PCs using Internet Explorer).

Microsoft has already bought and paid for entire school systems - the Texas school system is an example. Allowing an entire school system use of Windows and Microsoft software at little or no cost in return for not using any other company's software costs Microsoft nothing. In many universities, Computer Science is no longer taught. What is taught instead is use of Microsoft products. School systems with this deal have no incentive to use Linux, and their students will graduate without even knowing there is anyting but Microsoft software. They will be very resistant to using other products after they graduate.

Outside the U.S. cost does work against Microsoft. Poorer countries simply can't afford Windows and are adopting Linux for their school systems, and for many other uses. Even France is shifting their education system to Linux and has made a deal with IBM to support it. Using Linux is also seen as a statement of independence from U.S. domination. If the U.S. continues wholesale importation of programming talent, that talent is going to be entering the country with a strong bias towards Linux.

Move #6 - Incorporating Rivals' Ideas. Why buy a better product when Microsoft is giving away a "good enough" version free with Windows? This move has killed many software companies, but is completely ineffective against Linux. Linux programmers can be highly innovative on a detailed technical level, but on broader levels most Linux development projects are imitative. The incorporating is going the other way this time.

Where Microsoft is effective in this area is in incorporating Open Source Internet standards and then corrupting them (see Method #4 above). This is possible because most have versions under the FreeBSD license which allows this sort of incorporation. Linux code can't be used by Microsoft because the GPL license would require Microsoft to give away its own source code for any such product.

Move #7 - Starving Rivals for Software (added 1-5-01). This move was spectacularly successful in supressing OS/2, a product markedly superior to Windows. Microsoft threatened any software developer who dared start work on an OS/2 product with being forbidden up-to-date tools and information they needed to work around bugs and "features" of Windows. This eliminated all major software developers from the OS/2 market.

This tactic simply won't work against Linux - there aren't any major Windows software developers left, and Linux developers simply aren't interested in Windows. The exception, Corel, has already been eliminated by other means (a $150 million "investment").

Microsoft's other starvation tactic has been to gain "developer mindshare" with seminars, freebies, and selling their development tools cheap (and making it difficult to program for Windows with any other tools (and making it a license violation to use Microsoft tools to program for anything but Windows)). Unfortunately, "developer mindshare" now belongs to Java, and Microsoft is exiled from Java due to trying to kill it.

Move #8 - Buy & Liquidate (added 1-5-01). A favorite "final solution" for companies developing products that threatened Windows. "Sell to us, or we put you out of business." This is awfully hard to use against Linux developments because GPL'd code can't be controlled. It's already out on the Internet, so another group could just pick it up and development if it looked worthwhile.

Move #9 - Buy Loyalty (added 1-5-01). can't be used directly against Linux developers for the same reason as "buy & liquidate" - but - it can work to buy the loyalty of system integration firms, and that's where Microsoft has been putting it's money. If the integrator won't offer a Linux solution, the customer isn't going to buy one. This does have a risk for the integrator, who may lose jobs to "unbought" integrators with a lower cost Linux solution.

Microsoft has also deployed "buy loyalty" with cable companies, including AT&T, to assure they use Windows for their TV set top boxes. This is not working only because Microsoft has been unable to deliver product. Even the "bought and paid for" are adopting Linux and other solutions to get products out before they miss the market.

Move #10 - Hire Linux Programmers (added 2-17-01 - and I'm embarrassed to say, I didn't think of this one - but Microsoft did). This is precisely the technique Microsoft used to decimate Borland (until Borland sued, and won, and Microsoft paid). They offered signing bonuses of over a million dollars to Borland's top programming people. Now they are advertising and sending letters to key Linux programmers.

You can bet there'll be some good signing bonuses offered (though not on the Borland level), and you can bet they'll be studying credit reports to find "points of vulnerability" where they can aquire key talent at an economical price.

I expect these "new hires", once committed to employment, will be required to sign an NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement) that will effectively bar them from contributing Open Source software for the rest of their lives.

Will These Moves Succeed?

Together they are formidable, but they all have a severe weakness: they all leverage a Windows monopoly. Windows is becoming increasingly irrelevant as Internet standards become the new computing platform. Microsoft realizes this and has formulated NGWS (Next Generation Windows Services -or- Next Generation Web Services (depending on the week)) to move their monopoly onto the Internet. Unfortunately for Microsoft, the DOJ's anti-trust triumph almost certainly means NGWS is dead.

[ Update: NGWS has been renamed ".NET", and has been reconfigured to be more resistant to anti-trust remedy. If the company is split, the Windows side would be of relatively minor importance. ]

Most of these moves will be much more effective against the home user than the business user. Business is increasingly oriented to open standards while the home user doesn't know a standard from whatever Microsoft sells. To a home user, that computer is the only computer. To a business, even a small one, risking having to buy a Windows license as the cost of experimenting with Linux is insignificant, especially in view of how much money Linux can save.

My conclusion

Microsoft will continue to move strongly against Linux, and continue to search for leverage against it. Their moves will have impact, but will prove insufficient.

The cat is out of the bag. Businesses already depend on Linux servers for many tasks. They will resist having to replace those fast, stable, low cost, low maintenance servers with very costly, overly complex Windows 2000 servers. Linux has only a tiny foothold on the desktop, but that will increase exponentially as companies seek to escape the high cost and limitations of Windows PCs by using Web enabled applications.

Microsoft has been losing ground to Linux, FreeBSD and Apache (all Open Source) in the Web server market. Other areas will follow.

Andrew Grygus

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