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The StartX Files: How Linux Could Lose to Microsoft

Electrocuting the Elephant

  • May 8, 2001
  • By Brian Proffitt

By coming out last week and declaring open season on open source, Microsoft has unleashed an onslaught of invective from the Linux community more scorching than the time my uncle caught me looking at his Playboys when I was eight (my ears are still burning from that one). But this may be the wrong approach for us to take.

A lot of people wrote me an asked me what I thought of the whole affair and frankly I am still shaking my literary head at the nonsense. And I am not alone. My colleagues in the so called "mainstream" press (read: Microsoft-friendly) are also wondering what the heck is going on. Why would Microsoft aim itself at the open source and free software concepts, rather than the Linux operating system itself, they ask rhetorically.

They know the answer, of course: Linux is unlike any challenger Microsoft has ever seen. No one really owns Linux, a fact that scares the bejeezus out of the execs in Redmond. There is no one thing to emulate, nothing really in the Linux technology they want to "embrace and extend." Nothing except the overriding philosophies themselves: the GPL and the Open Source concepts.

And so that's where we found ourselves last Thursday, laughing like hyenas at Microsoft's shared source concept. In talkback after talkback, we (myself included) poked fun at the mighty software giant trying to clothe itself in the very best free and open source software has to offer-all the while stressing that while code would be shared, everyone had to remember that the code always belongs to Microsoft.

After I sobered up from the hijinks, I realized that Linux itself could be in for an interesting fight with Microsoft, despite Microsoft's apparent blundering into this arena. I say apparent because I don't think Microsoft is making mistakes here.

The first clue came on Thursday itself, when my wife came into my little editorial nerve center and informed me that she just saw on CNN that Microsoft was attacking open source. That was a midday report, made not too long after Microsoft posted the text of Mr. Mundie's speech on their Web site. I told her that I was aware of the story, asked how much coverage CNN gave to the tale (not much), and went back to my work.

Say what you will about CNN, if they give a little focus to something like this, then you know it registers on the minds of corporate executives somewhere.

The second clue came when the Free Software Foundation issued their obligatory press release in response to Mundie's statements. Microsoft, it seems, has not learned Universal Law No. 312: If you call automatically equate GPL'd software with "open source," you will get a corrective statement from the FSF or Richard Stallman. It's like smoke and fire, can't have one without the other.

Yes, Microsoft did confuse the two concepts of GPL and open source. Care to take a guess why? Because they know the average listener is not going to know the difference. And like any good political campaigner, Microsoft is not going after the truth here. They are going for perception and sometimes that's all you need.

In the portrait Microsoft is trying to paint, open source and free software are synonymous and they are bad news for software developers who want to succeed. In their world, the free software model is just as bad a business model as the dot.coms who just tanked on the stock market. Sure, the Linux community knows these facts are in error--but far too many people may take these erroneous conclusions as fact.

This is an old, old game in big business: emphasizing only the points you think will make the other guy look bad and you look good. Today we call it spin control and perception handling, but they had it even as far back as a hundred years ago. Thomas Edison practiced a rather gruesome form of it while trying to prove that his direct current form of electricity was far superior to competitor Nicholai Tesla's alternating current. DC delivery would be much safer, Edison maintained, since DC generators would not produce the incredible amount of voltage as AC power. To prove his point, Edison would hold public demonstrations and electrocute hundreds of animals with AC current. At one point, Edison even staged (and filmed) the electrocution of Coney Island elephant Topsy, who has apparently killed three men on a rampage.

Ultimately, Tesla's theories won out, because under Edison's DC power, there would have to be neighborhood power plants built rather than simple step-down AC transformers. Still, it was a near thing. The bitter irony of this is that Edison's demonstrations did demonstrate how efficiently electricity could kill, which in turn led to (in a rare moment of bipartisanship) the New York State Legislature overwhelmingly approving a new law switching executions from hangings to electric chair.

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