The Inevitability of Open Source Windows June 12, 2008Posted by rm42 in Computers, Linux, Windows.
Tags: Open Source Windows
The FOSS (Free/Open Source Software) Community knows, thanks to leaked Microsoft internal documents, that since about 1998 Microsoft has been in a sort of war against them. Because of this, it is not surprising that the FOSS community has looked at Microsoft with suspicion and has vilified it to no end. But, is Microsoft really evil?
The reality is that Microsoft is just a company. It is a company that was at the right place at the right time (when the PC was created) and this brought a lot of success. Of course, there was a lot of hard work and good talent involved. In some respects, Microsoft may have even been a positive force in the world, since it was instrumental in bringing down the price of computing at a time in which this was very expensive. However, with that success came a lot of power.
As we all know, power can be a good thing, when used wisely and benevolently, or can be a bad thing, when used shortsightedly an selfishly. Unfortunately, corporations are, by their very nature, selfish and shortsighted. I am not saying that all people inside of Microsoft are bad people. I am sure that, for the most part, most people at Microsoft are just your average, mostly honest, hardworking people. But, it is not in the best interest of “the company” to be generous and meek. So, management has sometimes seen fit to use their power in ways that benefit “the company” at the expense of every one else.
For example, lets take the case of the Linux operating system. With the advent of the Internet, creating a powerful high quality operating system through collaboration is now possible. People from all over the world can now cooperate to create a software pool that everyone in the world can benefit from. Because it is freely available to all at no cost, poor people can more easily afford to own an up to date computer for their computing needs. Since the code is open to all and there are no hidden APIs, companies can build programs that run on that operating system knowing that they are competing on a level playing field. Knowledge is available to all and passed on to new generations rather than locked-in within a single increasingly more powerful corporation. Doesn’t this sound like a good thing for mankind?
But, the above is not in Microsoft’s best interest as a company. Therefore, Microsoft has been fighting tooth and nail the growth and adoption of Linux. Is Microsoft evil because of this? Well, lets just say that, while Microsoft’s success was due in large part for being at the right place at the right time, it now finds itself in the way of progress and the betterment of mankind. Worst yet for Microsoft is that, as time goes on, the inadequacy of its proprietary model, for a world in which technology has become so intertwined with our lives, becomes more and more evident. Computers and the internet are the railroad and freeways of today, except that what is being moved are ideas. Everyone needs computers (increasingly so) and therefore everyone has a stake. Too much control by one company is not in everyone’s best interest.
This realization seems to be very widespread now. The European Union competition commissioner, Neelie Kroes, is pushing hard for Europe to get out of the proprietary treadmill. I remember when, in 2002, the FOSS world rejoiced at seeing a congressman from Peru very clearly articulate, masterfully really, the advantages of “free software” over proprietary software in a response to a letter sent by the General Manager of Microsoft in Peru. That letter must have sent chills up the spine of Microsoft’s management. I can only imagine what they must now be thinking about Mrs. Kroes position expressed publicly at a recent a conference in Brussels. If this trend continues, and there is no indication that it won’t, it seems that Microsoft is due for being replaced outright as the primary provider for the world’s operating systems and basic business applications. Is there anything Microsoft can do to avoid this?
There are several strategies Microsoft has been implementing to stem the growth and adoption of FOSS (For example, see here, or here). All of them, however, have proved to be only temporary stop-gaps, with very limited success. Even the threat of patent warfare seems to be a strategy that is not expected by Microsoft to be overly successful, otherwise we would be hearing a lot more about it. So, what can we expect Microsoft’s next big move to be?
Microsoft is going to become an OSS company, not a FOSS company. (See what the “F” stands for here.) We are already seeing the early signs of this. They have created a couple of open source licenses and have submitted them for approval successfully with the Open Source Initiative. Microsoft has pledged to become a more open company. Although the said pledge has been received with a lot of skepticism, I think they really mean it. They have to. Microsoft is now hard at work trying to convince the world that they really have changed. Is all this going to be enough? I don’t think so. They have to still go a little further. Lets see why.
What are the advantages that FOSS is offering to the world?
- A level playing field for software vendors. No hidden APIs. Everyone gets the updates and information about new features at the same time. Everyone has the same documentation and the same access to the OS developers.
- The possibility of accessing the code by the user. This is especially important when the user is a government, sometimes for security reasons. However, it can also be important in the context of education. This also allows the user to choose who to receive support from.
- An expanded potential for innovation and software improvement. This is because, since everyone has access to the code, innovations, fixes, and improvements, can come from anyone in the world, sometimes from the least expected places.
So, can Microsoft match that? Well, what if Microsoft offered Windows, or a version of Windows, as an open source product? They already have open source licenses that they feel comfortable with (albeit not definable as free software). They would of course retain the copyright and trademark. “But, but, then other people can compile the Windows source code and bypass purchasing it from us”, I hear Mr. Ballmer say. Yes, but Microsoft could still sell proprietary add-ons and applications since only the base OS needs to be open. They would retain the advantage of being the company most familiar with the code and of being the maintainers of the standard implementation, which would make them the premier company to offer support for it. They could offer money to those that contribute code to the Windows base. In one fell swoop Microsoft would eradicate some of the most important advantages Linux has over Windows as far as governments, third party software developers, and the general public goes. What does Microsoft lose in doing this? They lose some advantages over third party vendors that used to give them an edge. They would have to rework their way of making money from Windows around support. But, at least they are able to stay in business and are not tossed out altogether. I think it is only a matter of time before this happens. What do you think?