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Weekly Column

If You Can't Beat Him, Join Him: How Microsoft Plans to Drive Linus Torvalds Insane by Introducing MS-Linux

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

Steve Jobs, the Interim-CEO-for-Life at Apple Computer, is the smartest, slickest, slimiest, sexiest son of a gun in the whole personal computer industry. This guy could sell anything to anyone, so watch your wallet. And this week, we saw what I consider to be the best performance by Steve Jobs in the history of his playing Steve Jobs. He announced, essentially for the second time, MacOS X Server, but this time he told us that we were going to be allowed to make improvements to certain parts of the OS code on the condition that we share those improvements with everyone else. Fair enough. But Apple also reserves the right to have its improvement NOT be shared with everyone else even if its improvements happen to look exactly like our improvements. In other words, we can do Apple's work for Apple, and if we do it well, they'll call it theirs. Oh, and they can cancel the whole license at any time, making your work useless. But the best part of the Apple Public Source License is they give us the right to charge for our code, but only if the customer feels like paying for it! We can try to charge, but we can't restrict access to only those who pay. On the other hand, Apple gets paid every time, and this is the first Apple product I have seen that apparently comes with no free support.

Actually I have no problem, personally, with this license, but it sure doesn't look like open source to me. Now let's all go whitewash that fence!

I'll predict right now a legion of readers who will say, "That's not what Steve, our Steve, wonderful Steve said at all." But read the fine print, and you'll discover that's exactly what is going on. And I don't fault the guy, because the software he was announcing will still be good value for money. Let's just not call something "free" or "open" when it isn't.

Apple's new Server OS certainly has its roots in the open source community, since it is built on the Mach microkernel from Carnegie-Mellon University, Berkeley Software Distribution Unix from the University of California, and comes with the GNU compiler from the Free Software Foundation and the Apache Web server. These parts all cost Apple nothing but porting time, yet they also seem to have acquired Apple copyright notices along the way. Is that legal?

MacOS X Server is aimed not at the Linux community, where most people think it is aimed, but at Microsoft's Windows NT and at Novell's Netware. For $500 bucks, Apple says you can have a file, print, and Web server operating system that supports 1,000 users, which on the face of it beats the heck out of both Microsoft and Novell. I doubt that there is a Mac yet that can actually support 1,000 simultaneous users, but the product will certainly get some attention. It is Apple's hope that MacOS X will be seen as a kinder, gentler Linux that just costs a few hundred dollars more.

True Linuxheads won't be willing to pay the money (after all, there is already a free Linux port for PowerMacs), but for easy-to-use departmental servers, this thing could be quite successful, especially if they get around to adding firewall, SMB, and e-mail support.

The value of Linux to Apple here is that Linux has made it okay to adopt an alternative server OS in corporate America. With IBM doing deals with Redhat, why not turn to Apple? Steve Jobs is counting on this.

And speaking of IBM, did you see the story about Big Blue building a massively parallel Linux system with their Netfinity servers? Linking about 37 of them together, they achieved graphics benchmarks equal to a $5 million Cray from only $150,000 worth of their Pentium servers. The coolest part, though, was the IBMer set up the network then went to the local Barnes & Noble the day before the demo and bought the Linux software!

But the more interesting Linux story this week comes from Microsoft, not Apple or IBM. PC Week had a story recently that Microsoft was working on a version of Microsoft Office for Linux. While Redmond didn't confirm this story they didn't deny it, either, which in the case of Microsoft is usually a grudging confirmation.

I have been pondering this a lot, looking for spiritual guidance, and conclude (purely on the basis of thought, mind you, since I have no inside knowledge) that we will soon see MS-Linux.

It is the perfect product for Microsoft. It costs them nothing to produce, since it is already done and freely available. People are already paying little companies like Red Hat and Caldera, so they'd surely pay Microsoft for the same code. People already love the Linux platform. Microsoft could actually add value through device drivers, a better installation program, even a Windows 9X graphical user interface. With these improvements, don't expect MS-Linux to be price competitive with Redhat or Caldera: Microsoft will make it cost exactly as much as a Windows 98 upgrade.

Microsoft has Office for Linux in development, and what they give up by selling a free OS they'd recoup with sales of Office, SQL Server and their visual language programs. And don't forget the effect this could have on the Department of Justice. The Feds are actually dim enough to see this apparent weakening of the Windows monopoly as part of a logical consent decree rather than as a route to Microsoft dominating yet another $500 million application market. Now who's whitewashing whose fence?

With 7 million copies of Linux out there, and the StarOffice Suite the only application game in town, Microsoft will see this as very similar to its quite profitable Macintosh application business. In fact, Microsoft has probably concluded that it can't afford to NOT be in the Linux market, especially now that its big database competitors have embraced the platform. And the best part is they can use this surprise attack to distract us when all the Windows 2000 disaster stories start to appear.

Speaking of which, after last week's column on Windows NT and Y2K, Microsoft has invited me in for reprogramming and DNA manipulation.

I am not a number! Stay tuned.

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