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Eric S. Raymond: Beware the Microsoft shell game

May 02, 2001, 23:30 (80 Talkback[s])
Date: Wed, 2 May 2001 17:40:03 -0400
From: "Eric S. Raymond" <esr@thyrsus.com>
Subject: Breaking story: Beware the Microsoft shell game
X-Eric-Conspiracy: There is no conspiracy

A few hours ago, a friendly journalist tipped me that Craig Mundie of Microsoft is going to make a major speech in New York tomorrow attacking open-source software -- specifically, attacking the GNU General Public License. This speech is probably intended to define Microsoft's party line on open source, and to shift the terms of the debate over it to one that Microsoft thinks it can win.

I haven't seen the speech; the friendly journalist told me it was embargoed. But I'm expecting it to be a masterpiece of FUD. You watch; it's going to be a studied and ingenious attempt to create fear, uncertainty, and doubt in the minds of software users and the public -- and to obscure Microsoft's underlying motives by cloaking them in affected concern for the public welfare.

This is a heads-up to journalists, industry observers, and the public -- as you listen to that speech tomorrow, don't get taken in by Mundie's shell game. Keep your eye on the pea. As the perceptive gentlemen of "The Economist" observed earlier this week [1] Microsoft's real agenda will be to preserve its monopoly, whatever the cost to software developers and the public.

So I can predict with fair confidence some of the things you're going to hear -- perhaps not as explicit statements that can be refuted, but as hints and allegations, a studied and careful attempt to disinform without telling explicit lies.

First off, expect Mr. Mundie to try to blur the distinctions between open-source development, use of the GPL, wholesale copyright-law violations like Napster, and outright software piracy. These are four different phenomena; a lot of open-source software doesn't use the GPL, most open-source developers are supportive of intellectual-property rights including copyright, and the open-source community as a whole has historically taken a definite stance against software piracy. We only give away our own work, not other peoples'.

Nevertheless, expect Mr. Mundie to lump all these phenomena togetber and hint darkly that Linux is the spearhead of a conspiracy to destroy trillions of dollars in intellectual-property assets. He probably won't come right out and accuse us of being Communists; that trial balloon popped when Jim Allchin floated it a few weeks ago with his "un-American" crack and got laughed out of town. But he'll let the implication hang there and hope it sticks.

What he'll hope you don't notice is that the "assets" he's mainly interested in protecting are Microsoft's -- and not just the $26 billion it has in the bank, but the far more important asset of over 90% desktop market share and tight control of its customer base through proprietary lock-ins.

It's that lock-in, that control of customers, that is what open source threatens most. With open source, customers can have real choices; they don't need to be locked into a perpetually more expensive upgrade treadmill, they can own and inspect and modify the software they depend on, they can have real security because they can know exactly what's running on their machines.

That choice is the fundamental threat to Microsoft's business model, and it's the reason they're getting clobbered by Linux in the server market (every month, more Linux installations come up on web servers alone than in Microsoft's entire Windows 2000 customer base). So it's not just individual open-source projects like Linux and Apache Microsoft has to defeat -- it's the open-source way of thinking about software.

One way to defeat it is by making people afraid of it -- by conning potential corporate purchasers into believing that using open-source software on their machine somehow means the GPL will force them to publish all their software or business secrets. Craig Mundie will try very hard to make you believe that. It's not true, but a company that blatantly falsified videotape evidence in a Federal antitrust trial is not going to balk at lesser falsehoods.

Another way to defeat open source is to co-opt it. After Craig Mundie gets through trying to make you fear and distrust open source, he will tout Microsoft's new so-called openness. He will doubtless talk about how Microsoft is willing to share source code with large customers and universities. And he'll talk up the "open" services like SOAP that are part of Microsoft's .NET plans (about which more later).

What Mr. Mundie will hope you don't notice is that Microsoft wants all the "sharing" to be in one direction. What they're doing is what we call "source under glass" -- you can see it, but you can't modify or reuse it in other programs. They want to be able to get the huge benefit of having thousands of outside people review their code without allowing any of those people to use what they learn on other projects.

We in the open-source community see this for what it is -- a counterfeit, a trick, a scam. It's aimed at recruiting free labor for Microsoft without giving the outside contributors any stake in or control of the results of their effort. In true open source, all parties are equal. When I give you my software under an open-source license, you have exactly the same rights as I do. That's what I trade you in return for your help in testing and improving the software. That's the voluntary cooperation that built the Internet.

Mr. Mundie also doesn't want you to notice, or remember, Microsoft's long history of perverting supposedly "open" standards into customer lock-in devices, by poisoning them with proprietary extensions that only closed Microsoft software understands. A notorious recent example is the games Microsoft played with the Kerberos security protocol. It would take a really cockeyed optimist to believe that Microsoft doesn't have similar maneuvers planned for once the .NET protocols get established, if they do.

Finally, Mr. Mundie will doubtless wind up his exhortations with a paean to the glories of .NET, Microsoft's attempt to turn itself into the worlds's biggest application software provider. Stripped to its essence, under this plan you mostly would give up buying software and instead rent networked services from Microsoft by the month.

There are two things Mr. Mundie hopes you won't notice about this. One is that .NET is born out of fear. Microsoft's strategists aren't stupid. They can see the trend curves, that falling hardware margins are spelling the doom of any business model based on expensive packaged-software licenses. They know the revenues from their own software business have actually been declining for three quarters now, covered only by creative accounting practices for which Microsoft is under a federal fraud investigation separate from the antitrust trial.

More fundamentally, those strategists have read Clayton Christensen's "The Innovator's Dilemma"; they can see that open-source software in general and Linux in particular are an unstoppable technology disruption that will sooner or later reach the heart of Microsoft's business -- and that the only way for Microsoft to survive is to dodge the bullet, to be in a different business before that bullet hits home. Hence the push to become an ASP.

But the more important thing he hopes you won't notice is that in the brave new .NET world, you would lose even the meager rights you have now under Microsoft's End-User License Agreement. You would own nothing. You would instead become ever more dependent on Microsoft to provide the basic services that your computer and your business rely on to function. You would have to absolutely trust Microsoft to neither deliberately violate your privacy for business advantage nor to leave your vital data exposed to crackers like those who break into Microsoft's own servers every few weeks.

Keep your eye on the pea, gentlemen and ladies. Because that is what Microsoft is really after -- a fast exit out of the packaged-software business, a lock on your critical data and network services, and an indefinite extension of the coercive monopoly position described in Judge Jackson's findings of fact. Higher prices, fewer choices, worse lock-in, and Microsoft uber alles for ever and ever, amen.

[1] "A Kinder, Gentler Gorilla?"


                <Eric S. Raymond>

The right of self-defense is the first law of nature: in most
governments it has been the study of rulers to confine this right
within the narrowest limits possible.  Wherever standing armies
are kept up, and when the right of the people to keep and bear
arms is, under any color or pretext whatsoever, prohibited,
liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of

  --Henry St. George Tucker (in Blackstone's Commentaries)