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Community: Microsoft's New Strategy Against Open Source

Mar 05, 2001, 12:12 (102 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Neil Anuskiewicz)

By Neil Anuskiewicz

Microsoft executive Jim Allchin recently made some disparaging comments about Open Source software in general and Linux in particular. Both the timing and the substance of these comments reveal a shift in Microsoft's understanding of the software market and what it takes to win there. They realize that they must manipulate politics as deftly as they have traditionally manipulated markets. Microsoft's political strategy is to confound the concept of Open Source with the concept of intellectual property infringement in the minds of policy makers. Then they want to work toward passing legislation that harms Open Source in the name of protecting intellectual property rights.

The bitter experience of the anti-trust case taught Microsoft executives that they cannot take politics for granted; they no longer assume they can win just through marketing savvy and manipulation. They were stunned when their competitors -- through intense lobbying -- succeeded in directing the power of the Federal government against them. Microsoft executives were determined to not let that happen again so they did what their competitors did: they hired well connected lobbyists from inside the beltway. Microsoft built a formidable political organization.

Microsoft soon learned that the army they built for defense can be used for offense. They intend to use their new found political clout against what has emerged as their biggest competitor: the Open Source software movement.

The Open Source movement has only recently emerged as an economic force. The question used to be "if I use Linux on the servers in my company who will customize and support my systems?" The question now is "how do I choose among the firms that can customize and support my systems?"

These Open Source consultants do not sell software they sell solutions and the brain power to implement and support these solutions. The market is starting to recognize and reward this powerful model. Linux is now the the fastest growing operating system in the enterprise. It already dominates -- in combination with the Apache web server software -- the web server market.

Jim Allchin recognized in this a political vulnerability: policymakers have no idea what Open Source means. Microsoft, using their public relations and political machinery, can now provide policy makers with a distorted definition of Open Source and use these distortions to do political and hence market damage to Open Source.

Allchin's goal is to confound the concept of Open Source with the concept of intellectual property rights infringement. He wants the words Napster and Linux to roll off the tongues of policy makers in the same sentences. He wants policy makers to see Open Source software as an aggressive threat to intellectual property rights.

Superficially, Open Source software and Napster-like sharing systems seem similar. Napster enables people to freely share copyrighted music over the Internet; Open Source software licenses enable people to freely share non-copyrighted software. Of course, the Open Source movement does not seek to infringe upon anyone's intellectual property rights but merely wants to ensure that their own code remains open.

These distictions may be lost on Allchin's intended audience: policy makers. Not only does Allchin want corporations and the government to fear Open Source, but he wants to use his political organization to push for legislation that damages the Open Source movement in the name of protecting intellectual property rights.

Microsoft executives correctly understand that the political and legal momentum is now moving against Napster-like systems. They know that government power has and will be directed against perceived threats to intellectual property rights. Microsoft would like to direct some of that energy against the Open Source movement.

The first step in a political war is to win the propaganda battle. Allchin's tactics are reminiscent of those of Joseph McCarthy:"I'm an American, I believe in the American Way", said Allchin "I worry if the government encourages open source, and I don't think we've done enough education of policymakers to understand the threat."

The first step toward countering Microsoft's political strategy is to de-link the concept of Open Source with that of Napster-like systems. These ideas have little in common and should be discussed separately. If we let Microsoft executives set the terms of the debate then Linux and Napster will become synonyms in the minds of policymakers.

Despite the fact that the infrastructure of the Internet was built with Open Source software, most people have no idea what Open Source means. The Open Source community must do a better job of education policymakers, corporate executives, and the public about Open Source. We not Microsoft must provide the defination of Open Source.

Finally, it is time for the Open Source community to get organized politically. The goals of this organization should be to protect the interests of the Open Source movement and to educate policymakers about just how important Open Source is to the economy.

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