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Editor's Note: Free as in... Vista?

Sep 09, 2005, 23:30 (54 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

Like many in the open source community, I am watching with some dismay Microsoft's reluctance to even contemplate shifting to OASIS formats for Office. Instead, as many more insightful than I have pointed out, they are behaving rather petulantly about the whole thing. Shifting to open standards, something everyone needs to do anyway, makes a lot of sense--otherwise Microsoft will lose Massachusetts as a customer.

This strikes me as both shortsighted and arrogant. Then I remember who I am talking about.

Actually, I must confess to a literary conceit: I know full well why Microsoft doesn't want to let go of its Office formats.

Their logic is pure and simple: if Office's formats are open, then the interoperability rationale for not using other office suites becomes much less of a factor. While many of us in the know realize that OpenOffice.org is perfectly capable of handling Office documents, Microsoft has been able to FUD its way past that so far with golden oldies such as "use native apps for native formats." If Microsoft were to adopt the OASIS standards, that whole line of FUD would go poof! like a rain puddle in Death Valley.

While it is interesting to watch Microsoft squirm on the hook a bit, I expect them to have something up their sleeve to protect their sacred cash cow, Office. Because that's what Office is to them: pure unadulterated revenue. Microsoft makes little revenue, comparatively, on its operating systems--certainly not on the consumer-level Windows XP. The Windows Server line is more profitable than XP (and presumably Vista), but when it comes to cash, Office is the top of the heap.

So what will Microsoft do to protect Office?

Conspiracy theorists will say that Redmond will somehow convince Sun Microsystems to drop its support of the OpenOffice.org project. If that were to happen, the theory goes, the already manpower-low project would have to pull in a lot of community help to get back into a full production mode.

I have no doubts that OpenOffice.org could quickly recover from such a staffing hit: it's LGPL license and popularity guarantees that another umbrella group (Mozilla? Novell? Red Hat?) would adopt the logistical network.

For this reason, and the fact that it would not behoove Microsoft to get caught messing around in a competitor's affairs (such things do attract the attention of the Justice Department and the SEC, after all), I don't think this scenario is likely. Of course, if Sun ever independently decides to get out to the desktop office suite business, no one will ever believe they made that decision on their own.

No, I think Microsoft may be planning to do something outrageous to try to solidify their hold on the desktop.

It is my suspicion that Windows Vista will be free.

Not Free, mind you, but free--as in beer.

Let's walk through this one.

If they do this, and I think it quite possible, they would certainly offer it as a free upgrade for those already using Windows XP or below. Redmond will probably offer it at a negligible cost for anyone installing new (likely to cover the cost of the box) and maybe even less, or free again, for someone who wants to download and install new from burned discs.

Let me be clear: if Microsoft offers Vista free of charge, it would only be the consumer version of Vista. There's too much money in the enterprise and SMB space for them not to try to get their money out of that. But there, too, I could see them offering the Vista Server line at a substantially reduced cost, particularly for governments and schools.

Crazy? Insane? Maybe, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense.

The immediate disadvantage to this, of course, is the lost revenue. But remember, Microsoft does not make that much money on consumer OS sales. Once Office took off, Windows has effectively been a loss-leader for Redmond. Giving the OS away for free might reduce their operating costs, since more people will upgrade online (Windows XP SP2 could have been a test bed for that process) and less boxes will need to be shipped.

The advantages to this approach would be very attractive.

Aside from the potential reduction in operating overhead, Microsoft would immediately gain huge goodwill from its existing customers. The IT world would reel from the news, and for a brief shining moment, Microsoft would be well-liked. (Then something called ViSTa.osDead A will start making the rounds on the Internet and everyone will come to their senses.)

Any operating system that people have to pay for would be in immediate danger. Apple's OS X, which has never been free, would be in serious trouble. In fact, Apple's recent decision to shift over to Intel boxes may be a better motivator for Redmond to go free with Vista than competition from Linux. Apple coming to play in Windows' sandbox would be enough for Microsoft to resort to something new.

If Vista were free, OS X would either have to follow suit to attract new customers or, more likely, we could see Apple get out of the OS business altogether and focus on iPods and other consumer electronics. Maybe Steve Jobs has seen this coming, what with the recently confirmed iPod/cell phone device we've been hearing about.

A lower-cost Server version would also ding the other operating systems in that space. Squeezed by Linux on one side and a low-cost Vista on the other, the UNIXes could face even more of a decline.

Microsoft's piracy problem would go away very quickly, at least on the OS end of things. If Vista's free, who cares if it's copied and distributed? Microsoft would want a free Vista to be passed along. Because keeping that OS user base will give Microsoft a home for its real revenue-generating products, such as Office. They will also be able to divert the costs of protecting Windows from piracy to protecting Office and their other apps.

Historically, this approach has worked in the past for Microsoft. Faced with a kick-butt competitor for its Internet Explorer browser, Microsoft did the only thing it could do while it tried to play catch-up: offered IE for free, and watched Netscape browser share plummet. (Hold on to this example, I'm coming back to it.)

Now, how would this move affect Linux? I suspect I know what Microsoft hopes will happen. Having a free operating system would instantly allow Microsoft to jump up and say to potential Linux customers "hey, we're free, too!" Sadly, this could be a swaying point for quite a few people.

They might also gain a competitive business advantage over Linux in the support arena, too. For the most part, consumer-level Windows has a huge third-party ecosystem of support, so that Microsoft doesn't have to lift a finger to handle customer calls. If I am a Windows user and have a Dell machine, when it crashes Windows, I wouldn't call Microsoft about it, I'd call the 1-800 line for Dell. Or eMachines. Or whomever.

But the Linux distributions don't have this ecosystem yet. If I paid for, say, Xandros and it hiccuped, I would not call Dell. I'd call Xandros. They would have to pay to have someone on the other end of the phone line when I call.

Now, that's what Microsoft hopes will happen. And, if caught unawares, Linux companies might reel from the initial impact for a while. Here's what I think would happen as regards to Linux.

While a free Vista would look attractive to many, let's keep in mind that this is still Windows. Which is unstable. Which is unsafe. Users, when faced with that reality, will soon come to the conclusion "hey, I didn't pay anything for this new Windows, but I am still having problems. Then there's this Linux over here, and it's stable and safe and just as free. Hmmm..."

One of the unspoken advantages Windows has had in the minds of those lacking in the clue department was the impression that a "free" OS like Linux somehow implied that it was lower-quality. That erroneous assumption will go out the window (pardon the pun) and people will see that quality has nothing to do with price--which is what we've been trying to tell them all along.

When price is out of the equation, people start looking a quality much more closely. Remember the almost-killed Netscape browser I mentioned earlier? It's coming back with a vengance, in the form of Firefox, Thunderbird, and Sunbird--all born from the old Netscape APIs. Internet Explorer, it seems, is still playing catch-up.

Microsoft's biggest problem is that it still thinks that if they build a product with enough features, then customers will buy it and stick with it forever. And, admittedly, that has worked for them for a long time, because people didn't know any better. If they released a free Vista, this theory would still hold true in their minds: Office would be made more attractive, they would reason, not only because of its cool features, but also because of a newly free Vista, the only OS on which you could use Office (because I don't think OS X would have an Office version for long after Vista).

But they are missing a big customer attitude shift that has cropped up in recent years. Users don't want to be told how to compute. They don't want to be limited in sharing their information. They want choices; they want IT to function on business rules, not the other way around; they want to access their data until one minute before infinity.

Even with a free-as-in-beer Vista, eventually people would realize (again) that they simply do not have these options. Linux is about choices and open development. OpenOffice is about open standards.

Customers want to be in control and ownership of their IT apps and data. And no amount of freebies from Microsoft will change that.