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.comment: Can Microsoft Hurt Linux? In a Word, No. - page 2

Appeal Not, Lest Ye Be Appealed

  • February 28, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

An old program director of mine at KDEN in Denver a long time ago, a short, gnomish man, had a favorite saying, especially for disc jockeys, of which I was one.

"Anytime you think you're indispensable," he would say, "stick your hand in a bucket of water and when you pull it out see how big a hole it leaves."

In its battle with Linux, Microsoft will discover that it is the hand and we are the water, for the reason my PD gave lo, those many years ago, and for another reason: You can poke at Linux all you want and it will just move out of the way until you leave.

Here's what I mean:

Right now Microsoft is troubled because Linux is threatening it as a server OS, as well it should because Linux is superior for that purpose. And right now Linux distributors are pushing for a bigger share of the enterprise server market. So that's where we can expect to see (and are seeing) the first Microsoft FUD assault. It will probably do some damage, and there is certainly no shortage of vulnerable distributions.

The problem for Microsoft is that, like immersing one's hand in a bucket of water, pushing Linux down in one place simply causes it to rise elsewhere. If Microsoft decides to launch a full attack on Linux as a server product, it may actually do nothing more than accelerate the development of Linux as a desktop operating system. This not necessarily a bad thing.

In competing with Linux, Microsoft is facing an enemy unlike any it has encountered before. In the past, stealing a company's technology or, if the theft isn't taken lightly, buying enough of the company to be able to quash the resulting lawsuit has been a common tactic.

The last broad challenge to Microsoft's desktop and server hegemony was OS/2. But in that fine operating system there was a single supplier. All it took to effectively wipe out OS/2 was to dishearten IBM. History shows us that IBM is easily disheartened. (It also shows us that IBM seems to be in a perpetual state of confusion, and seems to believe that flinging vast sums of money at a project with no thought as to how that money is to be spent will somehow produce the desired result, even though time and again the company's experience is to the contrary. IBM could aid Linux considerably by offering up some of its technology in threading and desktop design. Instead, while it has joined the Gnome and KDE clubs and pledged a billion dollars to Linux development, it has been silent on, say, sponsoring a port of Lotus SmartSuite to Linux. Indeed, IBM has joined the long line of companies who apparently believe that an operating system can succeed without having any desktop users. This may not be a bad thing, given IBM's demonstrated fickleness with both desktops and desktop applications. The single greatest argument in favor of open source, in my opinion, is that if some company decides to drop the ball, it's there for someone else to pick up. I don't expect to see source tarballs for SmartSuite anytime soon -- hell, anytime at all.)

Point is, with OS/2 there was a single opponent, and that's not the case with Linux. Distributions, locked in their me-too mentality, are at present bunched together such that they're behaving like a single opponent (with enough infighting to be if anything more disorganized even than IBM, something I thought impossible). They can fix this if they want, and their survival may depend on it, but these are scarcely reasons to believe that they actually will. Even if they don't, Linux will still be with us. Debian is entirely invulnerable to anything Microsoft might throw at it because when you get right down to it Debian doesn't care. It will keep on keeping on; if anything, a little martyrdom becomes it. If the commercial distributions find and assemble their wits, they'll survive, or at least some of them will, but even if they don't, we'll have Debian, and we could certainly do a whole lot worse.

So Microsoft can attack Linux on the server, and beat the commercial distributions bloody. Sooner or later, this will cause someone to start thinking about the desktop.

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