“First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.”– Mahatma Gandhi
The above is a very popular quote which effectively sums up the fight between Microsoft and Open Source Software (OSS).
Initially we had the ignore stage – Microsoft ignored the existence of OSS and pushed it away as a hobbyist toy. Second, came the ridicule – in the form of lies and FUD, such as the well-loved “Linux is a virus and cancer” attitude.
Now we have reached the fight stage – Microsoft’s empire is in jeopardy, and they will do everything they can to crush the competition. However Microsoft can stop OSS about as successfully as a child can stop the waves on the beach from destroying a sand castle.
Let’s take a look at some of the problems Microsoft is facing:
Vista is struggling – it’s expensive (both in software price and hardware required to run it), requires retraining of staff, and doesn’t provide any great benefits.
And this is showing – Dell has begun to offer Windows XP to their customers again, because of the volume of demand for it. (I wonder how many chairs Ballmer tossed over that one?)
Whilst Vista struggles, the fed-up OEMs are looking to alternative sources of income – and naturally they turn to Linux. Dell has recently said that they will be offering Ubuntu Linux preinstalled on 2 desktop models and a laptop model. And if this is the success that it should be, I am sure we will see many more vendors take up Linux.
Linux is a house-hold name
A surprising number of average computer users which I’ve spoken to recently know of, or have tried Linux. This is a great sign of success – it means that Linux is out there, it has market awareness. And these same people, have very little good to say about the Microsoft products that they use.
And as the OEMs begin to offer Linux, the barriers to adoption will drop, and when these people come to choose their next computer, they may very well choose the Linux option.
Apple has been growing a lot to become one of the most well recognized brands in the world. Their iPod has taken the world by storm, and Microsoft’s feeble Zune attempt has not had much success.
I’m sure many iPod owners, who are loving the Apple products, are looking at MacOS computers as well. MacOS is now a very viable alternative to Windows or Linux, with a reputation of ease surpassing anything Microsoft has to offer.
Apple has a good chance of using this reputation and success to take a sizable chunk of Microsoft’s desktop market.
The fear of Apple’s potential market dominance is rumored to be the reason why Microsoft isn’t developing MS Office very actively for MacOS – because MS Office is really the only reason why your average user has to use Windows these days. A solid MS Office for MacOS would break their last lock-in tool to keep people with Windows.
Of course, Microsoft has to be very careful, as OpenOffice.org is rapidly improving and will already work surprisingly well with Microsoft file formats – Once Openoffice.org has almost perfect conversion ability, Microsoft will have a very hard time to keep selling Office at the current price and/or keeping users locked to Windows…
I’m not sure who Microsoft hate more – the Open Source community or Google? Both of them are pummeling Microsoft from every corner, and as Microsoft tries to expand into the web-based market, they are having Google create better products than them at every turn.
It is quickly becoming clear that Microsoft is unable to produce innovative products and is just copping other’s ideas – with little success.
And finally, Microsoft is being run by management that can not adjust from their (incorrectly) fixed mindsets. In particular, there is Steve Ballmer. I usually refrain from making personal comments about people, but Ballmer is an exception. He is a very “unique” man who shows himself as being someone out of touch with the new world order, busy spouting slanderous statements about OSS, tossing chairs around his office when things don’t go his way and with his latest patent threats to OSS, is being compared to Joseph McCarthy. Not really a comparison to be proud of….
Microsoft is like the Romans – invincible at the peak of their might, but unable to adopt to the changing ways of the new world, and slowly but surely crumbling. Unless a very major shake-up happened in Microsoft’s thinking, they are doomed to lose market share and become a much less important player in the IT world.
A smart new Microsoft would see what is happening, and would embrace it. Why try to stop the unstoppable? Adopt Linux, and make “Microsoft Linux”. It’ll save them development costs and give a better product.
MS Office is one of their flagship products – expand it, and offer versions for MacOS, Linux and Windows – that way they can’t lose no matter where the market goes.
But this sort of thinking is extremely unlikely to happen – Microsoft are fixed in their ways and with “personalities” like Ballmer running the company, I would not expect a large amount of rational thinking to occur.
So, with all these problems facing them, what are Microsoft going to do? Fight it. Fight it with their only weapon – their inextinguishable supply of money and lawyers.
For a long time, Microsoft hasn’t made any direct legal move against OSS (The SCO case being an amusing sideline with no real legal teeth), but have attempted to fight by means of propaganda, FUD and plain outright lies (remember the “get the facts” campaign?).
They have however spent time giving threats and ramblings about patents they may use against OSS. This is believed to have prevented various large companies from moving to OSS and there are rumors which suggest that companies have been paying Microsoft “protection money” to prevent them from being harmed by any patents Microsoft does infact hold.
Now it has stepped up a notch – Microsoft now claims that Linux & other open source programs violates 235 of their patents. (as reported by fortune/cnn)
Now this claim comes at no big surprise – after all, the patent system (particularly the US one) is inoperable, with completely obvious ideas being patented, very little (no?) checks of prior art before approving and armies of lawyers busying trying to patent everything they possibly can.
Now discussing the failures of the patent system is a whole other topic which I could probably fill a book about, so let’s ignore that for now…. :-)
Now, the real question is – why hasn’t Microsoft used this mighty warchest to crush the OSS threats? The reason is simple – they can’t.
And in fact, I would go on to call Microsoft’s great patent warchest a dud.
If they proceed to attack, there are huge companies like IBM with patent warchests just as big as (or bigger than) Microsoft’s. Mutually assured destruction. Both of these companies could keep fighting for years with almost unlimited money and legal maneuvers.
There’s also the Open Innovation Network, which is building a patent portfolio to protect Linux and OSS, and it is backed by companies such as IBM, Novell, Philips, Red Hat and Sony.
Microsoft is very unlikely to use these patents. But let us think of the worst case scenario, and assume they do want to start a fight.
Lawsuits and counter-lawsuits would fly about the place – it would take years for the cases to settle, during which time OSS will continue to grow and crush Microsoft’s market share.
There’s also the fact that most of Microsoft’s patents are probably duds. Ideas with prior art, things so obvious they should never have been patentable anyway, etc – which is exactly why they refuse to say what patents are being infringed.
If they did, the open source community would investigate and invalidate most of these patents and program around any ones which can’t be fought.
Microsoft would not win – so it makes far more sense to keep the threat of patents and cause a state of fear around OSS.
This behavior brings up an interesting possibility – IANAL, but if Microsoft knows of patent violations but does not defend them, they may lose some of the rights to sue for damages later on – this is to prevent patent holders letting people use something until it becomes really popular and then trying to extract money from it.
It also opens them up to lawsuits – someone with a good stack of money to spend on legislation could sue Microsoft for slander for generating malicious statements without proof.
Microsoft is losing the domination of their software empire – whether they adapt to the new world order, or whether they crumble will remain to be seen. Either way, Microsoft will never be the same again.
* Big thanks to my good friend Mark Rais (of ReallyLinux) for providing suggestions and proofing many of my writings. :-)
This brief opinion piece should not be construed as factual information, and only contains the opinions and personal experiences of the author at the time of publication. Linux is a registered trademark of Linus Torvalds. Microsoft, Microsoft Windows, Vista, and WindowsXP are trademarks or registered trademarks of Microsoft Corporation both in the United States and Internationally. All other trademarks or registered trademarks in this opinion piece belong to their respective owners.