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Why users benefit from Microsoft's delay on the Linux desktop

Mar 20, 2000, 16:00 (7 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Eric Laffoon)

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I've read time and again that what Linux needs to kick butt on the desktop is Microsoft Office. I disagree! Those of us who choose not to use Microsoft software (usually because of our Microsoft experience) are quickly branded as zealots who fail to see the business side. Those on the other side could be depicted unfavorably as well. All of this misses some vital points... and bothers me because I'm an avid capitalist who champions open source.

Let's look at this. First, many say that the desktop would quickly be ceded to Linux if MS office were ported. Perhaps. It certainly would validate Linux for many, but it could be a nest of snakes. Linux isn't Microsoft. (thankfully) Would a Microsoft split mandate MS Linux Office? Perhaps, but again this is also a rush to judgment. Any move by Microsoft away from their roots violates the three principles that cement Microsoft dominance. Is Microsoft evil? Well, let's look at the principles and you decide if there is evil afoot.

Principle one. It's got to be FUD, or more particularly the fear aspect. As long as computers don't work right there is a fear factor that running non-Microsoft software could make it worse. Irrational you say? Let's wake up! Microsoft dominates Windows ware, yet Ami-Pro beat Word to the punch and was a hands down press favorite for several years... to achieve 4% of the market share by Word 6.0. Why? Microsoft refused to play ball. It was all about file formats, even though Ami-Pro could read and write Word 2.0.

Principle two. It's still FUD. This time it's uncertainty. What if I want to do a Ph.D. level statistical analysis of my office budget and put in in the margins and foot notes of my office memos? Microsoft is king of the monolithic application... and producing it is killing them! Inherent to their design philosophy is an absurd feature and complexity bloat. As long as this is the defined standard there is no sane answer... regardless of whether they can be beat here.

Principle three. Eliminate the competition, usually by cutting off their air supply. Since this is not classically possible with Linux it is a very dangerous playground for Microsoft to cede the other two principles and validate the competition.

Is Microsoft evil? An argument could be made that a move to Linux would negate many if not all these issues and Make Microsoft play nice. That would be rather naïve. The primary advantage Microsoft enjoys in it's monolithic world is that people do most of their work in a very few applications. Whether it is simpler or better than a group of small focused applications is irrelevant. What is relevant is that people have grown very familiar with those products. People will go through hell to maintain the comfort of familiarity. People don't like to change... but they can't avoid it, can they? Microsoft turns that world upside down every couple years anyway doesn't it?

The problem with Microsoft and software is that people have no idea what a new paradigm should be like. Microsoft is design by marketing imperative like legacy issues, features and stability trade offs and more. The reason People like Linux is more than it being good and stable. The very opportunity for Linux to grow is in the striking difference of a principled technological design. Now with new office applications coming from KDE and GNOME there is a new generation of free desktop applications on the way with a new way of doing things. It's called parts. People pick and choose the components in their computers. Why not in software? What if I like XYZ's layout widget better than ABC's? Since change is inevitable either from Microsoft's revenue requirements or the Linux alternative it would seem to be a good thing to encourage a really new paradigm with new and exciting ways of getting things done in a spirit of open cooperation and productivity that will make the last decade seem like the dark ages.

The biggest impediment to such open interaction is Microsoft. Do we want MS Word 2000 to be the file format standard until they can get an upgrade out? How about data capable SGML or XML based standard file formats arrived at by a standards organization? Look at how the internet has grown with standards. MS Office may be what the masses are comfortable with today, but why? Just like the operating system, standard shrink wrapped office software will become difficult to sell in the face of excellent open source projects. In the the coming years the user will become proactive in their software, choices will flourish and software features and integration will exceed today's wish lists. Inevitably there is likely nothing Microsoft can do about the impending changes, but by being their usual arrogant heavy handed self they are perhaps the best marketing arm for Linux.

I think it's important that we remember that today's software battle is not just Linux vs Microsoft or open vs closed, but freedom, vision and collaboration vs restriction, absurd design and cooperation by edict. Finally let's focus on what we can control, open source projects that provide better alternatives... not an invasion from Redmond.