I thought I was done with this whole Windows vs. Linux thing but, as fate would have it, Microsoft officials (who apparently read my column last week praising Open Office) chose last week to announce that the whole Open Source movement - Linux, Open Office and the whole FOSS gang - was a rip-off of MS code and the company, mad as hell, isn't going to take it anymore.
In an interview with "Fortune Magazine" last week, Microsoft's top lawyer claimed that Linux's desktop environment GUI, its free e-mail programs, the Linux kernel, the Open Office suite and a bunch of other unspecified open source programs violated no fewer than 245 Microsoft owned patents.
That's a lot of patents, and companies smaller than MS have dragged alleged intellectual property thieves into court for years of litigation for far less - like two or three patent violations, which tech attorneys say is average in such cases. Microsoft, however, says it isn't interested in suing anyone - and has so far refused to reveal exactly which patents are being violated, or how the infringement was taking place.
I said it before, and I'll say it again; unlike many others, I am emphatically not anti-Microsoft. There is nothing inherently "bad" about Windows (not even Vista!). The company makes some fine, quality products.
But this isn't about quality, it's about politics. It seem that Microsoft is once again trying to muscle the competition out of business, or acting like a sore loser because it looks like Open Source is finally going to have its moment in the sun, or is mad because Vista isn't selling as well as it would like and is taking it out its anger on an easy target. It's more than just politics - it's FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt).
This isn't the first time Microsoft has thrown out these claims, and so far it hasn't taken any action to reclaim its patents and/or collect damages. Why? Possibly because Microsoft itself could be accused of "lifting" important OS concepts from the operating system that precedes anything the company produced by at least a decade - Unix, which it just so happens Linux is based on (http://tinyurl.com/3aqpm6, http://tinyurl.com/2q535j). Ditto for other OSs by IBM, Apple or Xerox.
There are several theories as to what MS's real purpose here is http://tinyurl.com/2bxqxlm, http://tinyurl.com/3xdxok) - but regardless, it's clear that Microsoft is hurting. An interesting Web site (http://blog.seattlepi.nwsource.com/microsoft/tags/) shows the evolution of Microsoft's thinking over the past 30 years, and the company has certainly managed to survive and thrive in a very competitive environment.
I certainly wouldn't count Microsoft out, but when you have to resort to threatening the competition with lawsuits, even as a negotiation - some would say "shakedown" - tactic to force an up and coming competitor (in this case, Redhat) to sign onto a cooperation/licensing/royalty agreement with them (http://tinyurl.com/35s9b4), it's a sign that things are not going their way.
Microsoft still dominates the desktop, but more and more, the signs are out there that it is losing position in key areas - it apparently is unable to even come close to Google in terms of on-line advertising (http://tinyurl.com/2aywon), and its operating system is beginning to lose serious market share to the completion's, namely Apple, which in March garnered 10% of the laptop market (http://tinyurl.com/2cp5oo).
You can even buy a complete Linux system - computer and all - for less than the cost of the "cheap" version of Windows Vista (http://tinyurl.com/2pstog)! Windows in all its various forms may still be around for a long time, but it's pretty clear that it's going to be thought of by the general public (as opposed to the geeks) as one of a range of possible solutions, not "the" natural choice anymore.
It's always sad when an era ends, but it's even sadder when a behemoth like Microsoft decides that FUD is the best way to get what it needs. Actually, anti-Linux FUD is nothing new for the company (http://tinyurl.com/er6ne). But this time, it seems to have an edge of desperation (http://tinyurl.com/2r2yxs) - despite the fact that it's still raking money in left and right from selling its products.
As MS tries to further protect its intellectual property (the IP it really owns, in the form of Windows, Office, etc.) in an era when it's easier than ever to override content copy protection, it can't help but lose customers who are going to be more and more frustrated at the limitations and high cost of Microsoft products vs. the far less expensive experience they can have with Linux. This, more than anything, should scare the bosses at MS: In an era where you can't sell the content, how do you make money? Maybe the "fear" part of FUD applies to Microsoft, not Linux users.
The situation reminds me of an exchange I followed on a Quark Xpress user forum many years ago. Several printing professionals were discussing some arcane issue of kerning using Linotype vs. kerning on desktop PCs.
During the course of the discussion, one of the users chimed in with a comment on how it was a shame that they let anyone with $500 buy a copy of software and print up anything they want on their computer. Better, he said, to leave printing in the hands of the "professionals" who knew what they were doing, like in "the good old days."
I sometimes think about this poor fellow's fate and speculate on what happened to him. He was obviously working in the desktop publishing trade, and was clearly facing a great deal of competition. Maybe he was forced to slash prices to stay in business, to compete with all the 20-somethings with a Mac and a copy of Quark and Photoshop who were doing far more creative work than he had ever imagined. Did he give up, go on unemployment, or maybe jump off a bridge? Or did he adjust, deal with the situation and figure out a way to thrive?
Maybe Bill Gates should try and track that guy down, to see how he handled a situation that Microsoft seems primed to face in the near future.