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Editor's Note: Longhorn as a Non-Issue

May 21, 2004, 23:30 (58 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

In X months, Y days, and Z.something-something minutes, Longhorn will arrive. So says the great Microsoft PR machine.

The Linux community is certainly aware of this big, new release. The GNOME and Mozilla Foundations are confabbing like its the coming of a war. The KDE developers are abuzz (at least, the ones I've talked to). Novell seems to be getting onto a war-footing about it, too.

Longhorn this, Longhorn that. Only Star Wars Episode II has gotten more hype so long before a release, it seems. And, I suspect, when the product comes out people will be just as disappointed.

Because, and maybe I am going out on a limb here, who really gives a flying-you-know-what about Longhorn?

At this point, some wiseacre realist will say "about 95 percent of the world's installed desktops, that's who." And I would shuffle my feet, think for a second, and come out with a more relevant question: "why should the Linux community give a flying-you-know-what about Longhorn?"

As I see it, there are two ways the upcoming Longhorn release will go, and neither of them really will make a big difference to Linux and open source software.

The first way is the one I hinted at earlier: that after all of the hype, Longhorn turns out to be just another version of Windows XP. Same basic interface with all of the same bugs and maybe some better-looking eye candy. It has happened before, and I was a closer witness than some.

In 1998 I was working for Sams Publishing as an editor, and I managed to convince my boss that I needed to attend a Window 98 launch event in Chicago, obstensively to find potential authors for the second wave of Windows 98 books we wanted to publish. (Yes, I've walked the dark side. Please keep your holy water to yourself, it still stings.) Actually, I wanted to visit some old friends for dinner in that fine city, but who's telling?

The event was huge. Glitzy. I remember lots of balloons and a live feed from Mr. Gates himself. The world was about to change, we were promised. Well, it did, I suppose, but not quite the way we expected. Sure, we got great eye candy (for the time), but we also got more worms and viruses that we can shake a stick at. Even after the also much-vaunted Windows XP came out years later.

For all of the hype and glitz that has come out of Redmond, I have only been impressed with one product from Microsoft, and that's Flight Simulator. Everything else has just been another version of tools I have used before, and usually with more problems than the prior version.

The second way the Longhorn release is going to go: the product sheds the problems of the old Windows codebase like a butterfly out of a rotten cocoon. It is secure. It is easy to manage. It does all the things it is supposed to and does them well. Seems farfetched, doesn't it?

But if this is so farfetched, why are the various open source development groups so up in arms about the coming of Longhorn? Because they, like me, cannot shake the niggling doubt that Microsoft might get its collective act together and finally produce something worth putting a price tag on.

So again, I ask the question: so what?

If Microsoft's Longhorn turns out to be the greatest thing since slice bread, how will that hurt Linux? The answer is, it won't. People so inclined to use Linux now won't flip over. People who are on the fence may have a harder choice to make, at least initially. But I am counting on the one thing that will ultimately keep Linux attractive to anyone who wants a stable desktop for home or work: Microsoft.

No matter how good (or how bad) Longhorn is, Microsoft will still be Microsoft. They will still come up with lots of new and creative ways to get the most money out of customers for the least amount of effort. Licensing will still be restrictive. And, unless some sort of absolute miracle happens, the source code will still be closed. Longhorn may be a better offering than Windows past, but it will still be offered by one of the most opportunistic companies in the world.

And people will still be repelled by that.

There are, some would remind me, technical concerns about Longhorn's arrival. Closed formats, new patents, and all sorts of other tricks may be coming that will cause trouble for those who want Linux to interoperate with Windows. I would agree with those points, and remind people that closed formats and patent wars may bring Microsoft more trouble than they bargained for in terms of public perception. If Linux' community can be ready for it.

Of all of the potential threats Microsoft can bring to Linux, I think Longhorn should be the least of the community's concerns. I personally am much more concerned about the potential for endless patent litigation from Redmond. If Microsoft can play Linux developers off to the public as a bunch of idea-stealing codes pirates, it won't matter if such litgation is winnable. In my deepest, most conspiritoral thoughts, I wonder if the whole SCO/IBM lawsuit was just a dry-run to see how such a PR battle would fare.

As always, I freely admit that I may be too short-sighted about this, and that there are legitimate concerns about the coming of Longhorn. I, for the life of me, cannot see any--this does not mean they are not there.

Microsoft will try to go toe-to-toe with Linux with Longhorn. But the moment the fight does not go their way, look out for the sucker punch from the guy in the blue butterfly suit.