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Weekly Column

Where is Eleanor Roosevelt When We Need Her?: Why the Linux World is Upset and Shouldn't Be

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

A shock went through the nerd world this week. It was one of thosedefining moments on the order of Dorothy turning to Toto and saying, "We're not in Kansas anymore." The Open Source Software community, specifically the developers of the Linux operating system, came under the strategic gaze of Microsoft. And like deer caught in Bill Gates' headlights, the hackers didn't like the experience. I'm not too thrilled with this development, either, but what bothers me is how the nerds are generally reacting the wrong way.

Last weekend a document appeared on the Net, ostensibly an internal Microsoft whitepaper about how to respond to the threat from Linux, from the Apache web server, and other Open Source products with major market share. The guy who posted the document, along with his own extensive comments, was Eric Raymond, a well-known programmer and Open Source advocate. Within two days, Microsoft had confirmed the authenticity of the document and hundreds of programmers had expressed various thoughts and opinions about it on Slashdot, the hacker news site. The cynics saw what Raymond called "The Halloween Document" as a deliberate plant by Microsoft to influence the antitrust trial taking place right now.

Painting Microsoft as threatened by Linux might make the company look like less of a monopolist. The other hackers were generally upset with Microsoft (no news there) for even trying to hurt Linux, for that was certainly the thrust of the Microsoft document.

There is very little history of Microsoft leaking documents, so I think we can discount that idea right away. Microsoft takes itself too seriously to try a tactic so imprecise. But the document itself has some interesting ideas, and seems to represent logical Microsoft thinking about what is to them a very real threat. Linux does threaten Microsoft, especially Windows NT, and the company is smart to be thinking about these issues. That Microsoft thinks it can defeat Linux is also interesting — wrong-headed, but interesting.

To throw the Halloween Document into a single paragraph, Microsoft feels that Linux and Apache are significant threats to Windows NT and Microsoft's IIS web server. They can't beat the price of these products -� free -� and in many cases the document acknowledges they also can't compete with their quality. Even worse, the Open Source development process is dramatically faster and more efficient than anything Microsoft can do, so Linux and Apache are likely to widen their leads over time. Microsoft's answer to this threat is a combination of sowing Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD), and "decommoditizing" the core protocols of these products. In other words, the only way Microsoft can see to compete is through dirty tricks.

In this case, Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt take the following form. Microsoft tries to redefine the public's view of Linux and Apache, especially in the eyes of top and middle management (the guys who don't really know what they heck they are talking about) in corporate America. They want to lean on the idea that nobody ever got fired for buying Microsoft software, even when the alternative was free software.

Decommoditization of protocols is a more complex idea, but can be seem best in how Microsoft has been attempting to undermine Java. I am a Java developer and can speak here from personal experience. If you want to write your Windows application in 100 percent pure Java from Sun Microsystems, there is no way to hide it from users. It sits right there on the desktop, even if it's some system application that users are never supposed to know exists. So of course, they click it off. With this type of application, what developers would really like is to stash it in the Windows system tray in the lower right corner of the screen, where all of the normal Terminate and Stay Resident (TSR) apps live. But the only way to make this happen is to use some Microsoft programming tools — tools that introduce code that isn't 100 percent pure Java.

So Microsoft gives added functionality, but at the cost of making the code incompatible (proprietary). This is decommoditization, and according to the Halloween Document, Microsoft will be doing the same thing to TCP/IP, HTTP, and the other core protocols of Linux and Apache. Going further, they want to replace simple protocols with complex ones, to tie developers forever to using Microsoft tools and code.

We've seen this all before, of course, from IBM, which invented this technique. IBM's Token Ring networking technology was intended solely to decommoditize Ethernet. And note here a very important lesson from IBM's Token Ring experience: Decommoditization failed in the long run.So all these nerds are upset. They are angry at Microsoft and concerned about how to make sure Linux and Apache can stay competitive. This is the thrust of Raymond's comments in the Halloween Document, and hundreds of other comments on Slashdot. With even the Wall Street Journal on the story, this has become a discussion around breakfast tables all over America.

It is the wrong discussion to be having.

The first and most important goal of any campaign to sow Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt is to redefine the terms of the discussion and Microsoft -� with the help of the news media and a bunch of gullible nerds �- has already done that. What a week ago was a discussion about the inroads Linux and Apache have made against commercial software has suddenly and instantly been redefined into a discussion of the threat Microsoft poses to Linux and Apache, and what those two development efforts have to do to survive. The very fact that we are talking this way means Microsoft is successful in redefining our way of looking at the whole subject. This is both dangerous and wrong.

While Linux and Apache may be threats to Microsoft, the truth is that Microsoft in no way represents a threat to either Linux or Apache. No threat, none, zilch, nada.

How can free software be threatened by commercial software? Linux and Apache have no market share or profitability goals, so they can't be threatened in these areas. Is there anything Microsoft can do, short of sending out a hit squad, that can have a real impact on Linus Torvalds? No. Are the core Linux and Apache developers likely to give up their work because of anything Microsoft does? No. Then where is the threat? The threat only exists if we accept Microsoft's view that market share matters. Yet the whole key to the success of Linux and Apache is to not care about market share.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, "Nobody can make you feel inadequate without your permission." These nerds -� maybe because they just like to get upset and spout off �- are suddenly worried about the inadequacy of Linux and Apache to compete where competition was never before a part of the discussion.

In the Halloween Document, Microsoft acknowledges that it can't compete with these products on quality or speed of development. So stop worrying and get back to work.

The most successful outfit in the obscure world of air racing is the Nemesis Racing Team, which hasn't been defeated since 1991. Their little racing plane �- called Nemesis -� is so much faster than any of its competitors that those competitors once called for changes in the racing rules specifically to force Nemesis to slow down. The Nemesis Racing Team responded to this threat in a novel way, by offering to share their technology with competitors. If you want to put a Nemesis wing on your racing plane, they will loan you their wing mold. The result of this reaction is that the gripes have gone away, yet Nemesis continues to dominate. This is because it's not just technology that counts, but how you use the technology.

The motto of the Nemesis Racing Team is, "Chase the dream, not the competition." This is precisely what Linux and Apache should continue to do. And the completely inadvertent outcome of following this strategy will be the decommoditization of Microsoft.

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