Free Software Versus The Juggernaut- by Chris Wenham

Why even a flood of free and open software isn't enough to thwart Microsoft

Now that OS/2 is out of the desktop domination race and Microsoft doesn't even have to try squashing us anymore, the center of attention has turned to a Linux vs. Windows race. Or more accurately, an Open Software vs. Microsoft race. The premise is that Microsoft, being a for-profit software company, cannot compete with software that's free. Well unfortunately the open software advocates are wrong, Microsoft can.

Software does not live or die on price alone. If it did then Linux would already have the 300 million estimated seats that Windows has. It also does not depend entirely on marketing or preloads anymore. What is beginning to count most in the Internet era is content, access to it, the distribution of it, and the money to buy more of it. Most new PCs are being sold today to people who want to go web surfing, not to word process.

When the Java hype got rolling three years ago, Microsoft was paying attention. Here was a threat, the first in a trend, that set out to remove Microsoft's chief advantage of available applications for their Windows platform. Microsoft knew that in a few short years computers would be so powerful that even running software in an emulator (the Java virtual machine) would be hardly noticeable to the user. Gone is the performance advantage of native software when only a benchmark can tell the difference. Also gone would be the ease of use advantage when Linux got easier to install and came with a nicer user interface.

Probably what caused Microsoft's famous "turn on a dime" maneuver of late '95 was when they realized that the desktop was lost, and what mattered now more than anything was control of content. "We woke up thinking 'browser share'" in their words. Instantly MSN was re-purposed, MSNBC and Slate were born. Bill Gates sought successfully to become the worlds largest copyright holder and money began pouring into companies working on content packaging and distribution (RealNetworks, developer of RealAudio and RealVideo), even into the company who made the computers used by the leading majority of creative types: Apple.

Turn to present, and the desktop race has long since been supplanted by the browser race. Microsoft is even desperate to get this one in the basket quickly, giving away its browser for free, muscling vendors into bundling IE with Windows 95, and finally forcing the issue by "integrating" it with Windows 98 until the two are inseparable. It's no mistake that Windows 98 also contains the WebTV technology they paid too much for a year ago -- the desktop is to become a television screen.

If this is their strategy then the company's other antics start to make sense. They know Java and/or its successors are not going to go away, but if they could get Sun tangled up in a brouhaha of lawsuits then Microsoft will have bought itself both time (to squeeze their API dominance for as much market share in the new medium as possible before it dries up) and distraction for the companies who think Microsoft still cares about the desktop in the same way they used to.

It also accounts for the sudden urge to get the horrifically unfinished Windows 98 out before the DOJ can force them to split it up. It's clear that it wouldn't have been shipped this early if the antitrust case never happened -- the number of users having problems installing it is twice as great as it was with Windows 95. Not even Microsoft, long heralded as the champion of buggy software, would ship something that bad.

IE's purpose in life is not to be the best browser, not even to be a nice GUI for Windows, but to get Microsoft control of the HTML and upcoming XML standards. Believe me, once Microsoft thinks it can get away with it, it'll flip the bird to the W3 and start delivering on its own plans for the encoding of Internet content.

The idea, of course, is to make sure that the staggering amounts of content that Microsoft is buying up will only be viewable with Microsoft programs.

This content may start to include your favorite movies and TV shows, your favorite music, your favorite books and your favorite paintings. Microsoft will be able to purchase the rights to all this, acquiring songs and albums in the hundreds of thousands, TV shows by the season, movies by the sequel, and books by the gigabyte. Think you'll still get by on CDs? Well can you buy vinyl anymore? What happens when the music publishers decide they can make even more profit by scrapping the plastic medium and streaming music over the Internet instead?

Right now, Microsoft is already testing its ability to serve terabytes worth of data to millions of customers, ready for the day when we all have to pay to get access to it. Not even free software will be able to compete then. If it still can't even emulate the full Win32 API, what makes anyone think it'll keep up with an ever changing method of content encoding? By the time there's a free software equivalent for your word processor, spreadsheet, accounting package and all of the other boring applications that aren't sexy enough to warrant as much attention as an MP3 player, the race will have moved on to the next stage. Linux will still only be a hobbyist's OS and the open-source Netscape won't be able to read as much as your friend's personal home page. Don't expect an ounce of mass-market penetration.

The Achilles Heel of Charles Foster Gates

Yet Microsoft is terrible at the content game. You remember how much of a bomb Sidewalk was? That was supposed to eventually displace the local newspapers! Microsoft's programmer-centric culture is woefully out of tune with the creative and Madison Avenue types that make the broadcast and publishing industries go. In fact, so is much of Silicon Valley. Not only are they alienating the journalists and producers they hire, but they're also treating content as if it was another software program and as a result failing to take full advantage of it. They just don't "get it" yet.

But it's my feeling that this flaw won't last for long. Microsoft knows what's important and their history shows that they usually get things right on the third try of anything. They have a habit of simply acquiring the brainpower they need, and one day they're going to hire a man who knows how to run the content side of the operation right. When that happens, the slim window of opportunity for anyone outside of Microsoft, open software advocate or not, to sabotage their plans will close.

It's a very gloomy prediction, but that's the way I think it is. What will prevent free and open software from taking over the world, the way its proponents predict, is the simple combination of proprietary content and proprietary encoding of that content.

Money will make sure that there's little or no worthwhile content left that can still be read by open browsers like Netscape, or televisions unequipped with WebTV. And Microsoft has 10 billion dollars in the bank that isn't doing anything right now.

I'd like to hear what you think of this grand conspiracy theory. Crackpot time or crackdown time? Give me your thoughts in our Hypernews forum.

* * *

Chris Wenham is the Senior Editor of OS/2 e-Zine! -- a promotion from Assistant Editor which means his parking spot will now be wide enough to keep his bicycle and a trailer.


[Our Sponsor: Indelible Blue - OS/2 software and hardware solutions to customers worldwide.]

Copyright © 1998 - Falcon Networking ISSN 1203-5696