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Eric S. Raymond — Microsoft is right, for once

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?