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Microsoft flip-flop

By Mark Bolzern

Microsoft's flip-flop on Linux has created a lot of confusion in the marketplace. Here's a look at the positions taken during and after the anti-trust trial, and an evaluation by a Linux advocate.

Microsoft has managed to create a quagmire of uncertainty among some potential Linux users by conveniently recognizing Linux as a technological threat to Windows 9x and NT during the Antitrust Trial, then denouncing Linux as "hype" on a Microsoft web site. Obviously, Microsoft was willing to portray Linux as competition to the court, but not to the buying public.

One the one hand, in its "Proposed Findings" submitted to the anti-trust court, Microsoft all but endorsed Linux. The section on the findings on competitive operating systems glittered with references to Linux's viability and acceptance. While anti-trust prosecutors no doubt anticipated that sort of tactic from Microsoft, such detailed recognition of Linux coming from Microsoft was stunning. Of course, Microsoft's Proposed Findings were not the findings of the court, and shortly after the trial, Microsoft accordingly changed its public position about Linux.

Documenting the Flip-flop

While Microsoft may have previously characterized Linux as "pie in the sky," the company felt sufficiently threatened to show a short film ridiculing Linux at its July meeting with stock market analysts. Most people would consider that good old-fashioned FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt), a tactic frequently employed by Microsoft. After the meeting, however, Microsoft executives reportedly emphasized the real point: They had ridiculed Linux because they were afraid of it.

In September, in a hefty document submitted to the anti-trust court (Defendant Microsoft Corporation's Revised Proposed Findings of Fact, Microsoft Does Not Possess Monopoly Power in the Alleged Market for "Operating Systems for Intel-Compatible PCs." -- September 10, 1999) Microsoft made over 50 references to Linux as a competitive operating system that is gaining significant momentum and market share.

But in October, Microsoft was on the offensive again, publishing a "Linux Myths" (http://www.microsoft.com/ntserver/nts/news/msnw/LinuxMyths.asp) page on the web. This time Linux was characterized as a lot of hype.

We all know that Microsoft is a fierce competitor, with many challengers and enemies. But in the interest of separating the hype from the realities, we need to sort out what were the main assertions about Linux that Microsoft declared in its court-filed "Proposed Findings," and how do the compare to the "Linux Myths" document.

As one who has been heavily involved with the microcomputing world since the mid '70s, and a member of the Linux community from the outset, I would like to review the Microsoft positions and try to make sense of them. To accomplish this, however, we must assess some obvious contradictions.

Issue 1: Competitive Operating Systems

The case brought by "We The People" against Microsoft was for its alleged unfair trading practices that, among other things, stifled innovation. Microsoft countered that charge in their Proposed Findings document by saying there is considerable evidence of significant innovation in the marketplace. Indeed, Microsoft cited Linux very prominently among "competitive operating systems" and quoted Gordon Eubanks, CEO of Oblix, as saying Linux has already become a "viable commercial solution." Microsoft also cited that Linux "runs on various popular microprocessor architectures, such as Intel's x86, Compaq's Alpha, Silicon Graphics MIPS, Motorola's PowerPC and Sun's SPARC."

A month later Microsoft flip-flopped in its Linux Myths by saying, "Linux does not provide support for the broad range of hardware in use today."

Microsoft was, in fact, right the first time. In reality, Linux supports most exciting PC hardware and much non-PC hardware. Linux is an innovative extension of Unix as noted in my 1994 document "Why Linux is Significant," which predicted correctly many years ago the state of Linux today (http://www.LinuxMall.com/news/announce/lxsig).

With the proven stability of the Linux kernel, Microsoft is correct to anticipate that various Linux systems will compete effectively with Windows NT. Perhaps more important, Linux will compete with Windows 2000, Microsoft's future contender for the business community. In fact, the wild success of the Red Hat and VA Linux IPOs has no doubt stolen a lot of thunder from the long-planned Windows 2000 rollout.

Issue 2: The User Interface

Running Linux successfully on microprocessors is one thing, but what about the user interface? Microsoft's September position, taken in the Proposed Findings, stated that "KDE distributes a graphical user interface (GUI) for use with Linux on desktop computers that looks remarkably like Windows 98 . . . and Corel is also developing a graphical user interface for Linux."

Later on, in its Linux Myths, Microsoft maintains that "The complexity of the Linux operating system and cumbersome nature of the existing GUIs would make retraining end-users a huge undertaking and would add significant cost." Another flip-flop.

The fact is, the Corel and KDE interfaces are indeed pleasing and user friendly. So are the ones developed by the Gnome project, Xi Graphics' CDE and others. And when you consider the thousands of expert participants in the Linux community who are contributing their expertise to the free software cause, it suggests that if there's a next quantum improvement in GUIs, it will come through the Linux Community.

Issue 3: Software Applications

Okay, Linux qualifies as an operating system with a GUI. But what about applications? In the Proposed Findings Microsoft says numerous software developers are producing Linux applications, and more are on their way. Those which Microsoft identified included Netscape's browsing software, Lotus Notes, Corel's WordPerfect Office and the StarOffice suite of business applications from Sun, as well as productivity suites and many Internet applications.

In the Linux Myth document Microsoft flip-flopped again, saying, "Linux as a desktop operating system makes no sense. A user would end up with a system that has fewer applications, is more complex to use and manage, and is less intuitive."

It seems to me that this flip-flop is not only transparent, but flies in the face of potential future litigation. The fact is, freely-distributed Windows emulators will circumvent many interface problems. Even Microsoft's Proposed Findings recognizes that it's possible to run Windows-based applications for Linux by using WINE emulation software developed by the open source movement. In addition, Red Hat, Caldera, SuSE, TurboLinux, Linux-Mandrake and other future versions of Linux will be bundled with popular desktop applications. And products like Tarantella, which connects dissimilar systems to share applications, and VM-Ware, which allows running Linux and Microsoft OS simultaneously on the same machine, among others are starting to have a significant impact. There is also a significant trend toward the porting of Windows applications to Linux by manufacturers themselves.

Microsoft is also guilty of not being completely honest with its own users. Windows 2000 will be incompatible with a number of existing Windows applications, and with the advent of Intel's 64-bit computing platform, both Linux and Windows will find themselves on a level playing field for applications. When vying for application support on the Intel 64-bit platform, Microsoft may quickly fall behind Linux in terms of available applications.

Issue 4: What About Hardware Support?

What about the big hitters in microcomputer hardware, are they likely to support Linux? According to the Proposed Findings, "Leading OEMs such as Sun, Dell, Gateway, Toshiba, IBM, Silicon Graphics, Hewlett-Packard and Hitachi, (plus Apple) are now shipping Linux . . . preinstalled on one or more of their computer models."

Later, in the Linux Myths, Microsoft says "The Linux community likes to talk about Linux as a stable and reliable operating system, yet there are no real world data or metrics and very limited customer evidence to back up these claims." Microsoft points to it customers, including Boeing, Barnes and Noble, Dell Computer and Nasdaq, as dependent on Windows NT 4.0 for their mission-critical applications.

While Microsoft has, and will continue to have, an impressive list of high-end customers, so too does Linux. Nearly all of the Fortune 2,000 are listed in LinuxMall.com's customer base, and are using Linux for strategic purposes. As stated by Microsoft and noted in the press on a daily basis, many high-profile computer manufacturers and independent support companies are now offering comprehensive lists of hardware supported by Linux. At the time of this writing, in addition to the manufacturers mentioned by Microsoft, my company, LinuxMall.com, is being flooded by requests from companies wanting to offer Linux-based hardware, as well as offering support services for sale.

Actually, the Internet abounds with stories of failed installations based on Microsoft technology being replaced by Linux and other Open Source systems, and the phenomenal return on investment that doing so brings about.

Issue 5: User Support

The Proposed Findings state that "five to ten million people were using Linux on workstations or personal computers at the beginning of 1999, and that the number is growing rapidly."

Then, in Linux Myths: "Serious corporations are spending serious money on Linux, and it is growing rapidly on all relevant fronts . . .The Linux operating system is not suitable for mainstream usage by business or home users," and goes on to explain why Linux has a long way to go to be competitive to Windows.

It doesn't actually surprises me that so many millions of people were using Linux as of last year. As CEO of one of the Internet's largest Linux-related sites, I have seen our traffic grow to more than 1/2 million people per month, many of whom are using Linux. IDC has pegged the growth of the Linux market at about 212% per year, and I believe that Microsoft has pegged the annual Linux growth rate closer to 1000%. That's rather breathtaking, and the rate is obviously capable of continuing in the short term as the support for both corporate and home users gets dramatically better.

Witness to a Paradigm Shift? Microsoft's contradictory position on Linux as a viable competitor seems indicative of the difference between the marketplace and the court. It also indicates that Microsoft senses a paradigm shift similar to the shift that allowed Microsoft to replace IBM as the dominant force in the computer industry. Only time will tell if Linux will displace Microsoft entirely, but the shift is important nonetheless. Just as IBM suffered and then adapted, so will Microsoft. The question is "when."

If you're aware of the news in general, you know there is a lot of excitement about Linux, and a certain amount of hype. My guess is that all the ink Linux has generated over the past year has created a 60-70% awareness of the operating system. Of that, perhaps 5-10% took action in 1999. Does that mean it's being oversold? I don't believe so.

Microsoft minimizes the importance of Linux's low cost (actually, no cost to download, and cheaper yet when you consider time, $1.89 for any of the most popular Linux distributions on CD from LinuxMall.com.), arguing that "A free operating system does not mean low total cost ownership." However, when a Fortune 1000 business considers running Windows 2000 on servers and thousands of workstations, they will be faced with paying millions of dollars for their operating system in licensing fees alone! In addition, it is common knowledge that it is not out of the ordinary to need to reboot Windows NT servers weekly or monthly in order to avoid problems. Linux, on the other hand, has been proven to run for months and sometimes years without requiring a reboot. In 24/7 operations this is a critical issue. This is especially true when the cost of supporting Linux, because of its stability and configurability, may actually be lower than for Windows NT, even while techs for Linux are being quickly spawned by universities and the Internet. These are reasons why many if not most of the ISPs that once used Windows NT now use Linux or its Open Source cousin, FreeBSD, as will more and more corporations.

I believe Linux is en route to becoming the operating system of choice very soon. Its development simply cannot be stopped, simply because of the community dynamic behind it. As people become aware of how rapidly Linux is getting easier to use and support, acceptance at the desktop will grow dramatically. In the next two or three years, Linux will continue to attain significant market penetration. Over the next five years, it has a chance to become the dominant operating system for general use.

I also believe that the findings of fact tend to underestimate what is happening with Linux. In general, the present situation is accurately depicted by the findings, but I believe Judge Jackson has erred on the side of caution in finding that Linux is not a significant long-term competitor to Microsoft. However, Judge Jackson can be excused for his lack of vision concerning Linux since proving that Microsoft would have significant competition in the future will not excuse them for past actions.

In the end, Microsoft's public smoke screen cannot obscure the fact that Linux is a viable operating system for servers and desktops alike. Linux has made good on being the "better UNIX than UNIX" that was the stated goal of Windows NT. The question is no longer, "Is Linux ready for you?" The question now is, "Is the public ready for Linux?"

Copyright © 2000, Mark Bolzern
Published in Issue 52 of Linux Gazette, April 2000

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