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The Long Siege of Microsoft Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt

Dec 02, 1999, 02:19 (12 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Paul Ferris)

By Paul Ferris
Editor, Linux Today

Over the recent years of Microsoft's grand reign, several things have happened.

The buying public has become convinced that operating systems will be a mystery of operation. That things just break, and people should just accept that as normal. That security is nothing important, people can expect viruses and misuse of their personal information -- it's normal.

However, what I'm going to focus on here is something outside of the realm of technical operating system quality. This damage has taken place in the eye of the press, and therefore, in the eye of the public.

Put some company officials in an interview light, have them talk about where they are today or where they intend to go in the next few years and watch the damage. It usually centers around announcing either technology that is suspiciously going to do the same thing as a competitor's product, or new technology that's going to do something different or better than a competitor's new idea.

FUD(*) doesn't operate in the distinct realm of programmers and logic bits that are either on or off. FUD operates in the human psyche, in the very eye of negative emotion itself; Fear. The damage over the years has been up until recently, very speculative. The debate is over, however. Microsoft has lost the anti-trust trial with almost nothing in their court to show. They may have won some kind of war of push and shove, but a Federal judge has ruled that they have without out a doubt used their monopoly power in a negative way. I wager that a good portion of this misuse has been through intentionally spreading FUD.

When you motivate a good portion of your technical sales from the perspective of FUD, there are a lot of "yes buts". For example:

"I know that Linux is a superior operating system, but (insert FUD reason to parrot here)".

I'm not speaking speculatively here, I've heard them all as a person who's implemented Windows NT, Unix and Linux solutions. The reasons for the lack of choice when it comes to Linux are almost without exception based upon fear.

Even from people that trust me. An old boss of mine called me up the other day, and wanted me to help him choose some software to run some simple web serving tasks in his department. He's known me for a very long time, and depended upon me to manage his systems for years. But the first words out of his mouth when I suggested Linux had to do with how the people running his computers would respond to something so different. It was fear, plain and simple.

I will argue that Microsoft has fostered this environment, in total, with their monopoly power. In the past, people would get bludgeoned when their superior technology was overrun by things like mail serving products that won't speak to anything but their own kind as an example. Office suites, or web servers -- it's a big list.

The products are a one-two punch. The negative marketing is the first punch and the lack of inter-operability is the second.

"It may be more secure, but will it run Outlook Express and Internet Explorer?!? Do you think Microsoft will port Office to it?"

The tide is turning, but we will likely face a wall of FUD for years to come.

People don't like it when I use war terminology, but I've come to the conclusion that the analogy matches when viewed from the Microsoft perspective. The Linux front is not a war front, though. To understand why, you need to understand that when Linux pries the door open far enough, there will be room for many choices. FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, BEOS, Mac, OS/2 and other operating systems will likely provide choices to the buying public.

People will have a choice of operating systems again. Linux or any other Free Software product in a high spot will enforce standards by defining them well and in a prominent, easy to access method. That is why we are not at war, and Microsoft is. We have nothing to lose, and everything to gain. Microsoft has everything to lose when their monopoly power is neutralized -- at least it appears that they think of it that way.

I won't go into what will happen to Microsoft when soon the roads of inter-operability are opened. I can't. History doesn't dictate any good examples of what's going on right now with Linux. To speculate without a good model would be pretty pointless. To speculate in these accelerated changing times and with no historical model would be insanity.

I am willing to bet that it will be more interesting than anything you can imagine, however. Imagine being able to choose a technical solution on its merits, and not because it's got the correct sticker on the side of the box. Not because it's the only thing the boss thinks will work, without understanding the problem. Not because you think everyone else will be out of business. That's what I'm imagining right now.

"But, what if when Microsoft ships Windows 2000, your SAMBA breaks and they can't reverse engineer some new TCP/IP protocol or something?"

Being a savvy technical person working in an organization during these times of disillusion and change has been very trying. Watching as bad decisions are made and expensive, proprietary products are implemented over good open ones. Or having the victory of installing Linux where a dozen people said it wouldn't work. Or worse yet they bet it wouldn't work at all and hoped that you would fail trying.

There's excitement for you. There's "interesting" from everyone's point of view, but your own. This is why we have to stamp out FUD. This is why the Linux movement is more important than Linux itself. Linux represents more than an operating system. It represents the freedom to choose the right solution on its merits and not its fear lessening factors.

If we can succeed in gaining a foothold of even 30%, we will have "won" this war of fear. We will have established a new model of choice, one based upon technical merits and freedom over marketing hype. This is the "war" that Microsoft is ultimately losing. It's a war driven by unconscious undercurrents. Exposing those undercurrents to scrutiny will lessen their grip upon corporate managers and decision makers.

"I'll never use Linux here."

"Why?"

"There's too many different versions!"

There's a lot of talk among people about the "Linux Community" as a group of developers only. We're more than developers. There are people that just do documentation, tech support, web support, and so on. But the Linux Community is larger than that. For every developer, there are scores of users that are extremely technologically savvy. There are end users that use it at home. There are administrators, marketeers, industrialists, salesmen, classroom users -- a lot of people that are involved in many ways too broad to mention.

Each person that I've met that has been touched by Linux has typically come away in awe. Yet they don't usually consider themselves part of the community. As Emmett Plant stated in his Welcome Wagon editorial, we can all be a part of the community by being a bit more social about Linux.

We can all fight FUD this way as well. Where you see it, it should be responded to. Flaming isn't necessary and is usually ineffective, just write the editor of the magazine and explain that the article in question was technically wrong, or overly speculative about the future. If you hear a co-worker spouting about how Linux isn't used in big numbers, stop them and quietly explain that it's used for the highest percentage of web servers. Tell them your own experiences.

You don't have to argue. Just your explanation will be enough. They will begin to doubt their own doubts. One at a time, the fears that divide will be squashed, and the reign of choice will begin.

My cynicism is not dead here. I know that there will always be room for negative motivating factors in some companies' marketing arsenals. Yet the Internet has brought us a new medium, one that is harder to control, and therefore, harder to hide lies behind. It has also brought about an age of extremely fast change, one where previous tactics of fear, uncertainty and doubt are becoming less effective.

"Man, that new mail server is cool. We should have gotten Linux in here sooner."

Tactics like vapor-ware (announcing products that may never exist), and stall-ware (announcing products with long delivery dates) are now less effective, because they come out as announcements of delay, where in the past they appeared as announcements of products with acceptable time delivery.

Times are indeed changing, and all of these tactics are getting to be extremely well known. The buying public is less the violin in the monopolist's hands, and more than ever the skeptic. By lacking the same kinds of marketing departments, we again prove that we are not fighting the war, and especially not fighting it on Microsoft's terms.

Linux Today has begun a new era of this lack of fighting by announcing the Linux Counter-FUD Pages. By turning the spotlight on all the major FUD issues we can find, our objective is to give the community a place where negative and destructive marketing tactics that rely on FUD can be effectively countered.

We believe the best way we can do this is by simply organizing the information in the mainstream press that refutes specific FUD points. By making this information easily accessible, we hope to provide the Linux community with a resource they can draw on to counter FUD in conversations with colleagues. We hope that journalists in the mainstream press will find this resource so valuable that they will begin to make use of it in 'doing their homework' -- researching what their colleagues have said on the Linux-related topic they are getting ready to write about.

Inform yourself. Please take some time to read the Linux Today Counter-FUD Site. Especially if you are cynical about us being at war. Even if you are on the other side.

After reading it, you'll clearly see that not only are we involved in a war of fear, uncertainty and doubt, and not only have we not fought it, but that even so, we are still winning.


(*)FUD: Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. Marketing tactics involving the production of doubts in the mind of customers, as a method to get them to buy your product instead. Marketing tactics of the past.

The quotes in this article are of general form, from memory, and are not to be associated with any particular individual.

Paul Ferris is a paid employee of Internet.com, and the site developer for Linux Today.