In association with heise online

04 April 2011, 11:09

Why I was wrong about Microsoft

by Glyn Moody

I have been reporting on Microsoft all my journalistic life, and believe me, that's quite some time. To give you an idea how far I go back with Microsoft, let's just say I remember the occasion when I was given a personal demo of a hot new product that Microsoft was about to launch – a graphical spreadsheet for the Macintosh, later known as Excel.

I was particularly impressed by the evident passion of the person demonstrating the beta code – he clearly really enjoyed his job. But perhaps that wasn't so surprising, since his name was Bill Gates.

Of course, my relationship with Microsoft changed somewhat when I discovered free software, which was in 1995. At that time, Microsoft was totally oblivious of its existence, or at least completely indifferent; it certainly perceived no threat whatsoever that I could detect when I quizzed them on it in 1996.

Things probably began to change with the infamous 1999 Mindcraft benchmarks, which Microsoft paid for. They seemed to show that Windows NT was faster than GNU/Linux as both a file and web server, although the fact that the tests were conducted in Microsoft's labs naturally caused people in the free software world to cry foul. In the end, the tests were re-run under fairer conditions, and they did indeed show that Microsoft's product was faster.

That was soon fixed – by running these tests and exposing weaknesses in the free software that was used, Microsoft had effectively submitted a rather important bug report. But the more interesting aspect was the fact that Microsoft had paid for the tests at all: you don't go to all the expense of proving you are better than someone unless you perceive them to be a threat. By publishing the results of the Mindcraft tests, Microsoft had effectively admitted officially that free software was a competitor – a big shift from its previous position.

Thereafter, Microsoft began exploring ways of undermining this increasingly worrisome upstart with a variety of FUD. Indeed, it went through so many different stories about why free software was bound to fail/couldn't be trusted/was no good that five years ago I felt compelled to write a “Brief History of Microsoft FUD” in an attempt to keep track.

Microsoft's approach included the “It's not very nice” insults – Ballmer's infamous “communism/cancer" comparisons; the “It's not very cheap” TCO studies; and culminated in the “It's not legal” argument. Actually, there were two phases to the latter. “It's not legal 1.0” was essentially SCO – and we all know how that fizzled out. As for “It's not legal 2.0”, I wrote:

Since the indirect legal FUD failed, Microsoft has taken the last, desperate option it has available: to begin direct legal FUD. Hence Ballmer's cunningly veiled threats: he's not saying Microsoft will sue somebody in the GNU/Linux world over possible violations of intellectual property, it's just something that, well, he owes it to his shareholders (like Bill Gates and himself, presumably) to consider.

That was back in 2006, and what happened on this front thereafter was remarkable: nothing. Despite all the sabre-rattling, Microsoft never really followed up on the implicit threat to sue GNU/Linux for patent infringements, with the possible exception of the 2009 TomTom lawsuit, which was settled quite quickly, and was only tangentially to do with GNU/Linux.

In fact, rather than pursuing an aggressive strategy, Microsoft suddenly seemed to have seen the light. It started making conciliatory noises, seeking to work with open source groups rather than against them. It published open source code, and it created new open source licences itself. It seemed as if the engineers were finally gaining the upper hand over the lawyers in the long-running battle for the soul of Microsoft, with the younger, savvier generation that understands why openness is a better way finally triumphing over the corporate dinosaurs that wanted to squish the pesky mammals running around their legs.

It was certainly an uplifting story of good triumphing over, well, not-so-good. Although as a cynical journalist I was obliged to be sceptical, I did begin to feel that there were grounds for optimism when it came to Microsoft's evolving attitude toward open source.

Alas, I was wrong.

Next: The evidence - Exhibits A & B

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