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Editor's Note: On the Importance of Being For Something

Jun 08, 2001, 16:13 (117 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Michael Hall)

By Michael Hall, Editor

Somewhere in the UK, yesterday, Steve Ballmer opened his mouth and demonstrated, once again, that Microsoft doesn't much like open source software and thinks Europe ought not be embracing it. In keeping with similar mouth-noises the man and his coworkers at Microsoft have made of late, he even went so far as to say Free Software advocates are "anti-business." Once again, nothing surprising here.

Microsoft has done an awfully good job, lately, of grabbing headlines and attention with very little effort. A four paragraph item was submitted several times over by Linux Today readers eager to get the word out that Steve Ballmer's got, um, "issues" with open source software. Craig Mundie earned his company a place at an O'Reilly convention for the effort of a speaking appearance in New York and a single web page on Microsoft's site.

I wrote Richard Stallman a few days ago to see if I could get a copy of the questions Microsoft folk handed out to reporters at his New York University speech last week. The New York Times had reported on the questions, readers wanted to see them. In passing, I mentioned to him that the MS "Shared Source" site had posted a new list of naked assertions with question marks at the end, and I wondered if they might not be the same questions Microsoft had asked reporters to tell...er... "ask" him. I mentioned that I planned to link to them at some point.

No interaction I've ever had with RMS has involved much verbiage on his part, so I shouldn't have been surprised when his response to that aside was simply:

"Why link to hostile propaganda full of falsehoods?"

Well... good question, and I'm of two minds about it.

On the one hand, golly, there are some serious page views and eyeballs to be harvested in tossing out the latest Microsoft outrage like so much red meat. It's Pavlovian in its predictability. In fact, an informal tally I just made showed 50% of the past week's top stories on Linux Today being specifically Microsoft-related, comprising over half of the (unofficial) page views the top ten stories brought in.

It's easy to say "we provide a community service by linking to this." Indeed, the moral high ground is there for the grabbing: we provide a rallying point in the battle to promote Linux... just being good advocates... provide people with a place to gather and strategize.

That reads well, but it does little to dispel the image that invariably comes to mind when I find a new bit of Microsoft flamebait:

I see a pair of mannequins fashioned to look like Ballmer and Gates tossed into a wrestling ring while a gaggle of becaped musclemen and assorted leather-bedecked Baron Von Raschke and Mil Mascaras clones with penguins tattooed on their chests leap off the top turnbuckle and take turns smashing the mannequins with chairs. The mannequins, of course, have the same contented smiles one expects the real Mr's. Gates and Ballmer to have as they watch the spectacle from the box seats. It helps my imagination that I went to an actual wrestling match once and had the privilege of getting to watch a toothless old lady battle her way to the edge of the ring so she could shriek obscenities and give Jake "The Snake" Roberts both middle fingers until being carried back to her seat by security, where she contented herself with brandishing a Styrofoam "Hacksaw" Jim Duggin two-by-four and, well, giving people the finger while she shrieked obscenities.

Is Steve Ballmer clearly distorting facts when he implies that a company writing one piece of GPL'd code may have to open the source to its entire catalog? Yes, yes he is. Is Linux Today telling you about it going to affect your response if a coworker mentions this particular bit of disinformation as if it's fact? One would hope, given the centrality of the GPL to the shape of Linux today, the average advocate of any worth will know that's hogwash and figure out a way to say so diplomatically. So the answer is, to my mind, "no."

In other words, rather than taking the time to bring news to you, LT's just creating an opportunity to preach to the choir when we cover every burp and twitch from Redmond. We're also providing room for opportunists to market to you when they play on the obsessiveness of some in the Linux community when it comes to all things Microsoft.

This obsessiveness is ultimately corrosive, because it involves time spent cataloging and listing the reasons to be against Microsoft. Dwelling too long in this sort of negative space involves eventually forgetting watchwords like "flexibility," "freedom," and "efficiency" as the list of Microsoft's transgressions grows and we consume more energy cataloging them.

When, at one of my last jobs prior to coming to work at LT, I decided to build a small, backup system for a database I maintained, I didn't bring the technology people into my office and tell them "Look at what Windows couldn't do for us." I told them "Look at what we can do with Linux." Had I phrased it the other way, I doubt they would have been as receptive. As it was, the Windows advocate in the group I demonstrated things to was left with the ball firmly in his court, having to explain why a working system shouldn't be used. He couldn't.

This isn't to say that some Microsoft news isn't worth covering. It's important, for instance, to note the matter when they attempt to proprietize a standard or impede the use of software based on open standards. In other areas, though, specifically when they involve the inflammatory rhetoric of its executives, it seems more moderation is called for.

Some will read this as an attempt to shuck responsibility for past exploitation of the "Anything But Microsoft" crowd and its fixation with Redmond's maneuverings by sniffing in disdain and claiming the eyeballs made us do it.

We'd like to offer instead that this is an attempt to take responsibility and adjust our coverage, so overwhelmed by page-view-drawing flamage lately, to reflect news and opinions that are about something besides being against something.