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Eric S. Raymond -- Microsoft is right, for once

Jul 28, 1999, 06:52 (169 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Eric S. Raymond)

By Eric S. Raymond

Indeed do we live in interesting times. Today Microsoft, the Borg from Redmond, is on the right side -- the open-source side -- of a dispute about network standards. I expect water to begin flowing uphill any second now, and look out for pigs on the wing.

For those of you who have been living under a rock somewhere, the story to date is well summarized on ZDNet. The basic plot is this: some time back, AOL published on the Web the protocols for its hugely successful Instant Messenger (IM) service. Their stated intention was to make it possible for Unix (and especially Linux) developers to write clients for IM. Which said developers indeed did.

And all was well until last week, when Microsoft and Yahoo and several other companies launched IM clients. AOL promptly tweaked its protocol to lock them out -- and then repeated its action when Microsoft's programmers found a way past the block. AOL has declared that it has people monitoring Microsoft and will continue to take active measures to block Microsoft out of Instant Messenger's patch of cyberspace.

Microft has fired back by declaring itself for open messaging standards, and attempting to organize an industry consortium to pressure AOL into conforming to the published IM protocols.

Microsoft's stance in this brouhaha is, of course, hypocritical to the point of being nauseating. In the past, Gates's minions have been notorious for sabotaging and corrupting open networking standards at every possible opportunity, and Microsoft's own "Halloween Documents" explain why with almost brutal frankness. If your goal is to maintain a monopoly, jack up prices, and limit consumer choices, then you can't live with open standards -- a lesson AOL seems to have just taken to heart.

Now, you may think I'm harshing on Microsoft too much here. If so, you can refute me instantly by pointing me at the Web page where Microft has published the wire protocol for its Exchange message servers. Hey -- turnabout is fair play.

But. But. When all is said and done, Microsoft is right on this one. Their intentions may be predatory, but if the history of open source and the Internet is any guide, we should back them to win this fight. Why? Because once an open standard becomes entrenched, asserting the kind of control that Microsoft ultimately wants over it is very hard to do. Thus, for example, the failure of MSN to subsume the open Internet.

If we in the open-source community really believe in the power of openness and peer review and our development model to give users better choices, then we have to believe that an open standard will lead to good outcomes even when Microsoft is pushing it.

Also, this fracas gives us a perfect opportunity to refute the people who write off Linux and the open-source movement in general as an "anything but Microsoft" manifestation of resentment.

So say it loud and say it proud: Microsoft is right about open messaging, and deserves to win this battle. Say it even if it makes you gag (it took me several tries, I can tell you that).

And win it they almost certainly will; I wouldn't bet money on AOL's block holding for as long as another week. AOL's ability to tweak its protocol is sharply limited by the fact that it can't break compatibility with the huge existing base of clients (the whole point of the exercise is to keep them, after all). So AOL can't invent a new protocol, just twiddle some limited set of parameters on the existing one.

All Microsoft has to do is keep a couple of bright network programmers chasing AOL through the paramater space, extending the adaptive capability of the Microsoft client. Sooner or later (probably sooner) AOL will run out of dodges, and Microsoft will ship a client with all the adaptive capability of the existing AOL programs. Game over.

And if Microsoft isn't smart enough to do that, someone in the open-source community (a group very good at reverse-engineering) will be -- at which point Microsoft will get to use the results. So AOL loses either way.

So congratulations, AOL. You've taken a black eye in the press. You look as much like a villain and an obstruction as Microsoft ever did. You've managed to alienate the Linux/Internet/open-source community -- the largest, longest-established, and most creative tribe of programmers on earth. Indeed, you've made a good start on pushing that tribe into helping your worst enemy. All for an advantage that will probably evaporate in days or weeks!

After stupidity like that, I wonder what you do for an encore?