Microsoft Goes McCarthy in War Against Linux
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Microsoft Windows is the single most widely used computer program in the world. Chances are, it's running right now on your computer at home, in your office, at your kids' school, you name it. Millions of people see the flying Windows logo every day, as it waves across 90 percent of all computer screens on the planet.
Windows and its related programs have become so dominant that, as anyone who has ever heard of Bill Gates knows, the Justice Department is fighting a protracted legal war to break Microsoft's monopoly power. Over a year ago, Microsoft was ordered to split into three different companies. Lately, Justice has threatened to block the release of Windows XP, the latest version of the program, until the courts have decided on a remedy for Microsoft's misbehavior. Microsoft tried to get this decision delayed through complicated legal wranglings but was struck down by federal appeals court on August 17.
But considering how handily Microsoft lawyers have dealt with the government in the past, that may not be Bill Gates' biggest worry these days. Instead, he's probably looking over his shoulder at a program that is equal to (if not better than) Windows, one that's steadily eating away at Microsoft's market share, is constantly being upgraded, and is completely free: Linux.
Known in the geek world as "open source" software (its source code can be used or tweaked for free), Linux has become Microsoft's #1 competitor. According to market researcher International Data Corp., Linux garnered a 27 percent share of operating system software for computer servers sold last year. That's up from 24 percent in 1999 and 17 percent in 1998 -- a surprisingly high growth rate that positions Linux as the prime contender to knock Microsoft Windows (41 percent) from the top spot.
That has the folks in Redmond worried. So worried, in fact, that Microsoft bigwigs are calling Linux "un-American" and a threat to innovation. At a congressional hearing on intellectual property earlier this year, Microsoft operating system chief Jim Allchin said, "Open source is an intellectual-property destroyer. I'm an American, I believe in the American Way. I worry if the government encourages open source, and I don't think we've done enough education of policymakers to understand the threat."
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer called open source software a "cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches."
Even founder Bill Gates weighed in with his own rhetoric saying that open source was created with the belief that the business of software should not even exist.
Microsoft's gripe is that once a company develops software using open source code, it must forfeit its right to charge for the intellectual property that is the product of that development. It's largely viewed as a bogus argument, since there is nothing illegal about Linux or the General Public License that guarantees its open development and use; it may even be protected as free speech. In reality, Linux is less a threat to the intellectual property business than to Microsoft's business.
Linux developers, known as penguin-heads (in reference to their penguin mascot), are naturally a bit upset at Microsoft's attack. Posting on the popular Linux hangout Slashdot, a programmer going by the name of "herk" remarked, "Well if they can't destroy Linux through corporate stronghold tactics and intimidation, they may as well resort to convincing the general public it should be illegal."
Of course, many in the Linux community view the Microsoft offensive as confirmation that Linux has arrived. "It is telling when an unethical company who engages in various illegal practices descends into nothing short of crass nationalism to defend its case," added another open source programmer.
In a statement released in response to Microsoft's charge, several open source leaders -- including Linux's creator, Linus Torvalds, Red Hat co-founder Bob Young, VA Linux Systems CEO Larry Augustin, publisher Tim O'Reilly and Free Software Foundation guru Richard Stallman -- defended their movement, saying, "We have become so serious a competitor to Microsoft that their executives publicly announce their fear. However, the only threat that we present to Microsoft is the end of monopoly practices."
Ironically, Microsoft's accusations were made before a government that has already adopted Linux's for its own computers. Several federal agencies have chosen to use Linux over Microsoft on their machines. Even the National Security Agency (NSA) has developed its own security-enhanced version of Linux. Jeffery Hunker, Senior Director for Critical Infrastructure at the White House National Security Council says, "Open source software plays an increasingly important role in federal IT systems. I'm delighted the NSA's security experts are making this valuable contribution to the open source community."
The federal government isn't the only powerful friend Linux has made. Carly Fiorina, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, has said that "the open source movement is natural, inevitable and creates huge benefits." And last year, computer maker Compaq sold 24 percent of all servers that ran Linux, making it the best selling platform for Linux and an important piece of the puzzle for open source's future.
But IBM has emerged as the biggest player in the race to get Linux to the top. They alone have pledged to spend $1 billion in 2001 to develop and promote a line of Linux servers. With that kind of backing, Linux could become a household name by next summer.
"We see Linux as a major force in IT and moving IT to the next generation in the Internet business," says Irving Wladawsky Berger, IBM's vice president of technology and strategy. "So we are supporting Linux across all of our hardware platforms, our middleware and our services business." Specifically, mid-sized businesses will be able to adopt robust Linux technologies once reserved for larger enterprises. This trend of running Linux on smaller and smaller platforms should eventually reach the desktop of the average user, bringing Linux to the largest possible audience.
The open-source community's reaction to IBM's commitment has been largely positive. "For the Linux community, this means a long-term solid name to rely on for support," posted one penguin-head. "That's wonderful, as international companies will be able to get support anywhere, and smaller companies that really want a reliable solution will look at the IBM label as a plus."
Another Slashdot member added, "IBM might not be the biggest name in the PC world, but they are still one of the (if not the one) biggest companies when it comes to corporate mindshare. It's good to have them on this side and not paired up with Microsoft."
Needless to say, Microsoft won't be going down without a fight. This summer Bill Gates announced the Microsoft .NET initiative, which aims to move Microsoft's existing software onto the Web, where it will be available for use through a subscription service. Gates hopes that in the future all electronic devices -- from computers and televisions, to palm-helds and cell phones -- will connect to .NET's web of services. The success of this plan depends a great deal on achieving "vertical integration" -- in other words, Windows running on servers, on individual computers, and everything in between. Many believe that Microsoft's future depends on .NET, making it all the more important that they clear Linux from the path.
Since its congressional hearings, however, Microsoft's approach towards Linux has gotten softer and more subtle. "There's no attempt on our part to characterize open source as bad, or bad from a policy point of view," said Craig Mundie, senior vice president of advanced strategies at Microsoft. Instead, they've co-opted open source strategies by creating what they call "shared source." Through shared source, Microsoft has made available a fraction of their program code. But unlike open source, a developer is severely limited in the ability to modify and reuse that code.
The open source community is not buying it. Boston-based Linux developers Ximian recently announced plans for a software project they hope will compete with .NET. The project will help .NET-type services become popular by opening its doors to Linux users, but will undermine Microsoft's control of it.
Linus Torvalds, who launched Linux a decade ago, has joked in the past about achieving world domination. As his program celebrates its 10th anniversary this month (at a BYOB event) Torvalds' once-laughable dream seems more realistic than ever before. If Linux does become the next Microsoft Windows, it will probably owe its success to a mixed maelstrom of corporate forces, rather than the ambition of it creators. After all, as the penguin-heads will tell you, their real goal is "not world domination, but world liberation."