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The War

Jul 30, 1999, 01:32 (57 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Paul Ferris)

[ The opinions expressed by authors on Linux Today are their own. They speak only for themselves and not for Linux Today. ]

By Paul Ferris, Staff Writer

Listening to a lot of journalists and their criticisms of the Linux community you can hear clearly one side of a very well founded complaint. They claim that the "Linux community" is a belligerent mass of open source activists.

Well, they are right about one thing. The flaming must stop. Members of our community should never, ever simply trash a group of people because they have made a different decision than the one we would have made.

That said, however, I must also point out that it's just as crazy to simply think that the belligerent masses are at it because being an Open Source fanatic is some kind of perverse fun.

There's a lot of anger in this mob. It isn't some kind of freak accident that made them all appear to be a bunch of delusional paranoid operating systems fanatics.

This is happening because for the past 10 years there has been a war going on. They did not choose this fight. It was chosen for them by a company in Redmond Washington. Read the Halloween documents if you don't believe it. Read VCNET's Boycott Microsoft compendium if you are still doubtful in any way. The war is happening because one company cannot rest until all competitors are vanquished. Worse than that, the prisoners of war must be killed as well. They must bury the survivors.

Never mind that it's not sporting - it fits their idea of "competition". Never mind that they want to maintain their monopoly status, even though they want to deny that they have one. Even in the face of their own witnesses during the recent trial admitting that Microsoft has a monopoly.

Microsoft does not "play" by any set of fair "rules". If it can win, even by "cheating", it will do so.

And that's the part that's dead wrong. That's the part that brings a lot of people to any technology that is not Microsoft. But Open Source software is not about hating Microsoft, as I've stated before.

This is to further clarify that position, and to realign it for some people who think that maybe we should just "all get along".

Getting along, that entails a lot of things. For one thing, standards that are open. Truly open where everyone can see, and use, and use together. Those standards, they must be embraced. That means embraced, and not extended without a decision by committee.

This one company I've mentioned, it can't seem to live by those rules. It must come out with "extended" versions of open standards, or broken ones that causes competitors products to crash, or simply not work.

Joe Public is often times ignorant of standards. People often wrongly assume that the Microsoft Word ".doc" file format is an open standard. Sending .doc files as email attachments tends to make Joe Public think that if he cannot open that file, he must get with the times. He must embrace "The Standard". Joe Public doesn't realize the difference between a new "open" standard that requires some new program, and a proprietary one pushed by a monopolist. He really should care, but it's beyond him.

Microsoft will use this trick to their advantage over and over. The only way to stop it currently is to hope that Joe Public will see benefits from interaction between several different operating systems, such as OS/2, Beos, Mac, Linux and Windows.

If Joe Public could see what was going on he would be up in arms. But remember, this guy is usually counting pennies at Best Buy, and thinking that it's really cool that all the systems there have "Windows 98 included for free". He doesn't understand much more than that.

Perhaps it's time to legislate fairness in the operating systems community. Perhaps we should draft a set of laws dictating that if an operating system is going to sell at all, it will have to execute a certain code base based upon an open API that everyone agrees upon. Perhaps if a program is going to write a certain class of file, say a word processing document, it will have to conform to some kind of agreed upon open file format. If a web browser is to be offered it will have to read only a certain class of HTML, no more, no less. No extensions that don't work well with everything.

Is that what has to be done here to make the playing field level? I shudder at the thought. That would be wrong as well. But I'd vote for it if it meant that the beast in Redmond would be reigned in. Clearly, they can't abide by open standards. It doesn't fit with their war mentality. It would be a shame to legislate it because the unwritten rules of inter-operability were broken over and over.

We didn't draw these battle lines - we live by a totally different set of rules in fact. Take Linux and FreeBSD for example. There is a lot of competition between those crowds. Do you see them making different competing standards for TCP/IP so that the two systems won't work well together? For one thing, no it's not happening, and for another, no, it's not the way we work.

Our cards are face up on the table. We are not fighting this war this way. We refuse. By the very definition of our methods, we will not fight in this manner.

But to think that just because we do things this way, that we will win the war, that's just plain crazy. To stand idle, and watch as the carnage from viral, proprietary software mounts daily. To watch business make the trip to the Microsoft store like a bunch of addicts visiting the local crack house without saying something, that goes totally against my grain.

No, I will not ignore the war. I did not invent this war, it was done for me. It was done daily as my better informed decisions were over-ridden by others who simply did not understand. The "network effects" of Windows NT cannot be ignored. If we do not push back the line, and at least hold our own in this fight, it will not be worth it.

Microsoft is not in this for tiddly winks. It's big bucks if they kill us off. Open Source software provides the last hope for those that want freedom to innovate in the field. I know what I speak of here, I am one of those people.

I am happy that things are going our way, but skeptical that the Open Source revolution is just going to "happen". For one thing, that's not how we got where we are today.

Today, you can order Linux pre-loaded from several vendors. Today, there are certification programs being discussed. Today, IBM, HP, Compaq and some other big names are pushing Linux. That would not have happened so quickly if it had not been for an anti-trust trial, like it or not.

Like it or not, the converse would be true as well - Linux probably would have been pre-loaded easily last year. Imagine if no one company had an illegal monopoly in the Intel hardware space. Imagine a wildly competitive desktop world where Windows, OS/2, Beos, DR-DOS/Gem or Geos all shared similar pieces of the pie.

Yes, I'm out of my cotton-picking mind here. Some wild crack I'm smoking isn't it? NO! It could have happened in a less cut-throat environment.

In a less monopolistic environment, Linux would have been taking market share last year easily. I think it's pretty obvious that most of the systems would still be servers - but there would have been less hassle with OEMS. Read some of the trial testimony, and you immediately get the reasons why. Any OEM that dared to load something Billy didn't like got instantly penalized. They got accused of not "respecting" the Microsoft Mob. Their contract could even be canceled if they didn't play by Microsoft's rules.

It's amazing what litigation can do. Today, some vendors are emboldened by the new-found power of choice they have. Today, you can order Linux pre-loaded. Those vendors know that if they get threatened, they can simply pick up the phone to the Department of Justice, and relay the data. The results for Microsoft will be less than favorable.

Too bad Microsoft can't just "be nice" in the first place. To bad we cannot simply "all get along" in this scenario. Too bad we have to defend our natural right to survival in this creepy world. Wake up, that's the way it is.

Where is Intel in all of this? Intel has made investments in RedHat software, and there are indications that they are working on the Linux port to the Merced processor. But recent indications of interaction between Microsoft and Intel show that they are still betting on the "Wintel" monopoly.

It's my feeling that here they could really care less if we win or lose our battle. If Windows wins, Intel wins. Remember, the vast majority of Microsoft O/S shipping today is Windows 9X (DOS based) technology. That technology is tied to Intel architecture strongly. If Linux gets a decent market share, and somehow takes over the desktop, where would that leave Intel? Linux makes it easier for hardware portability to occur. The only reason that Intel is taking an interest in Linux, in my opinion, is because they cannot afford not to.

Face it, none of the Intel-based Unices have made the splash that Linux has. Face it, Windows NT is pretty bad as a server platform. Intel cannot afford not to have Linux in some regards as a server, but they would probably not like it to make it to the desktop. On the desktop, suddenly the playing field becomes extremely leveled and their cash cow - people buying Windows 98 - it's not the sure thing it used to be.

We didn't, as I've repeated many time here - choose this fight. It's been chosen for us. The battle lines are drawn, but we didn't draw them.

This isn't just about being nice, this is about having the tools that you need to do your job. The tools that help you enjoy it as well.

In some ways this is aimed at Bob Metcalf. Yes Bob, some people are rather emotional about Linux. They are up against a wall, and they don't have the option, like you do, of sitting in the grand stands and saying in effect, "this will be an interesting fight". These people CARE, and maybe they don't know how to say it right.

For every one of them, there are probably 50 Linux users who care just as much, are level-headed, and not making anywhere near as much noise. I know the loud ones make us look bad, but I can understand clearly where they are coming from.

In my job, daily, I must provide solutions for my customers. I find that with Windows, those solutions are costly, bloated, and typically go against open standards if they in any way involve Microsoft. This isn't because I'm some kind of crazy open source bigot. This is because I know what I can do with Windows NT and what I can do with Unix or Linux. It would be easy for some people to forget what they know about Unix, and sell a Microsoft solution at all cost to the customer. I cannot. I care.

The Linux solutions, they clearly provide degrees of freedom not found elsewhere. They definitely provide a degree of quality not found with Microsoft products. In a world where the choices are being choked by perceived costs, Linux provides a breath of fresh air.

Clearly I'm not in the grandstands here, I'm in the thick of the fight.

One of my old bosses used to say to me: "Paul, just because you are paranoid, that doesn't mean that someone isn't out to get you." Well, the Linux community, it's paranoid all right. They have seen the dead bodies of their predecessors on the field. They know what evil they are up against. Most of them do anyway.

I know I do. It's wrong to flame someone for their opinion. But to think that it's a lunatic fringe that is causing all that hatred, that's just as wrong. To ask for a fair fight and mention Microsoft in the same sentence, is that not insanity as well?

Enough of the unfair punches. On both sides. Look at Microsoft and Java, er Kaffe. Look at the way they are attempting to embrace and extend HTML with Office 2000. Look at the way they want to control Perl so it's got features not found on Linux.

We owe it to our peers to explain to them the better ways to do things. It should be done with a clear head. It must be done.

It would be beautiful if we could all just choose the operating system that best fitted the job, and not worry about market share, or whether or not we are gaining or loosing in some area. Wouldn't that be nice? Wouldn't it be really cool if you could just go to work and say to your co-workers: "Hey, my NT station keeps locking up, I'm loading Linux and the company's apps. You guys can keep using NT if you like, I don't care."

Right.

Like it or not, we are at war. Wake up and smell the Kaffe. Sound the alarm, but do it with a clear head. And don't be lulled by kind words about us all "just getting along". I'd like to see it someday, but judging from past experience, it's going to be quite a while, if ever, if it involves Microsoft.