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Kit Cosper -- Then You Win

May 18, 1999, 02:35 (75 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Kit Cosper)

By Kit Cosper

In recent months, I've had the opportunity to sit back and watch a prophetic statement made many years ago unfold before me. Many of you have seen the statement -- at Linux Hardware Solutions, we have distributed it on T-shirts since last October. The quote is attributed to Mohandas Gandhi (or Mahatma Ghandi, depending upon the reference used)1:

First, they ignore you.
Then they laugh at you.
Then they fight you.
Then you win.

I'd like to provide my perspective on these few lines and how they relate to the relationship between the corporation known as Microsoft and the Linux community.

I use Linux here, not to diminish any other moniker that might apply -- be it GNU, OpenSource, Free Software,or *BSD -- but due to the fact that Linux is the target with the highest profile and has attracted the attention of Microsoft.

First, they ignore you
I don't think we need to dwell too long on this point. After all, how much can you say about things that didn't happen? For the first several years that Linux was mentioned, the Microsoft response never amounted to more than, "What's that?" So, although a measure of the ignorance may have been feigned, I doubt there was more than a ghost image on their radar scope.

Then they laugh at you
My first recollection of this goes back to sometime last summer when Steve Ballmer made a habit of dismissing Linux as nothing more than a toy being used to amuse computer enthusiasts: students as well as professionals. This phenomenon built momentum, with Ballmer being replaced as spokesperson by the one we all know and love, dear old Ed "The Mouth" Muth.

Ed Muth's role has metamorphosed from stage two to stage three, which we'll take a closer look at in a moment. Along with the participation of Ed Muth, we've had the dubious honor of attracting direct references from none other than Bill Gates himself. Although less frequent, the outbursts by Mr. Gates have followed fairly closely the tone of Muth. Until recently, Microsoft appeared to be stuck between this stage and the next, apparently trying to figure out who they could fight. They started tossing out real FUD one minute, then they would change to a more patronizing tone, apparently fearful of providing too much credibility to the movement due to their protests.

Then they fight you
The recent Mindcraft fiasco is probably the most poignant example of this stage. I think it actually started with the Halloween documents, since it is apparent in these that Microsoft is at least trying to figure out how to fight, even if they didn't know who to fight at that point.

Judging from the Linux Today archives, an off-the-cuff, totally unscientific survey appears to indicate that the FUD campaign started in earnest sometime around the first of March. The Mindcraft "study" was an apparent attempt to add some credibility to the FUD from Redmond.

I'm being charitable when I make the observation that it didn't quite work out as planned. Where will the next blow strike? What will be the next target? When all is said and done, will the answers to either of these questions really matter? Whether they realize it or not, Microsoft has attacked a hydra. If they manage to successfully sever one head, at least two more will take its place. Microsoft is finally pitted against a competitor that they cannot buy, cannot bankrupt and cannot combat in the traditional sense. They see their competitors embracing Linux, they see large, high-profile customers embracing Linux, and they don't know what to do.

Then you win
They're fighting, so it's only a matter of time before we can claim victory. The recent invitation to have Linux pitted against NT in the ZD labs is the most direct affront so far. We don't just have Microsoft publishing the results of a study, we have them issuing a direct challenge.

If they didn't view Linux as a legitimate threat, why would they bother? Unwittingly, they have provided a level of promotion that could not be purchased otherwise. There is no need to walk into their trap. We can play this game on our terms, when we're ready.

If we keep our wits, there is no way we can lose. Will Linux mop up the floor with NT across the board? Probably not. But Linux doesn't have to. Through the simple act of issuing a challenge, Microsoft has already crowned Linux the victor.

1. Yes, his name is Mohandas (Karamchand) Gandhi. He has also been known as Mahatma Gandhi and (incorrectly) Mahatma Ghandi. There are several references that I have located that list the first and the last, and other references list all three. That's why I mention in the paragraph at the beginning that there are references to different spellings of his name. Email comments are welcome, but I don't need anymore reinforcement on the spelling of his name. I listed the confused spelling as a point of reference and used his proper name in the main body. Thanks to Ajay Shah and Michael Hall for additional insight.

Kit Cosper started using Linux in 1993 and was a member of the Red Hat Development Team from 1995-1996. In 1996 he founded Linux Hardware Solutions which has recently joined forces with VA Research. When he's not at work Kit enjoys SCUBA diving, fishing and spending time with his wife and three children.