The new documentary Revolution OS explores the birth and adolescence of the computer world’s Free Software and Open Source movements until they came of age with the creation and release of the LINUX operating system. For a precise definition go to Opensource.org but the key beliefs all revolve around a more community-oriented approach to software development and distribution. Not only should applications be freely distributed, but with their original source code as well. Others are then encouraged to make changes that will produce improved or enhanced derivations of the original, which should also be freely distributed.
Now if one company has truly and vehemently opposed these movements since the beginning of the computer revolution, it’s Microsoft. They really instrumental in developing the personal computer market. Arguably, their preferred proprietary software model was probably necessary to focus the industry around some central standards. The PC market was never going to coalesce if the same hardware had six different operating systems available and software had to be specifically written to work on each one. However (PERSONAL OPINIONS EXPESSED HERE ARE THAT OF RON WELLS SO DON’T BLAME FILM THREAT), I also believe the manner in which Microsoft has chosen to operate began to hinder growth by at least the late-1980’s. Of course, probably no one would care how they wield their power if they had made the absolute best software of anyone. But they don’t. The Redmond, Washington giant has a few key weaknesses and flaws that are pertinent to why they so detest Open Source. They are:
1. MICROSOFT IS HISTORICALLY WEAK IN APPLICATION DEVELOPMENT AND EFFICIENCY. ^ A lot of people joke that the only reason PC’s have grown so fast in power and memory is just to keep up with the requirements of the latest versions of Microsoft applications. That’s not as funny as the quality of the first, or 1.0 release of most any new Microsoft product. Nearly always created to compete against an existing competitor’s product, the first couple versions of Microsoft applications are nearly always slow and/or buggy. There’re plenty of examples. Remember when the first edition of their Internet Explorer was released to compete with the leading web browser Netscape Navigator? It sucked. In the early 1990’s, Microsoft wanted to compete in the lower-end database market, then dominated by FoxPro. Their answer was MS Access, a more consumer-oriented product that lacked most of FoxPro’s development capabilities and most of its speed. In other words, it sucked.
2. MICROSOFT IS NOT AN INNOVATOR. ^ This isn’t exactly the house of inspiration. Nearly every one of the company’s key products was either bought or conceptually borrowed from somewhere else. Gates’ very first software product, made for the long-gone Altair computer, was a version of the BASIC programming language originally developed by a pair of Dartmouth professors. While IBM was planning the release of its new IBM PC in 1980, they cut a deal with Microsoft to license its OS from them. Of course, Microsoft didn’t actually have anything at the time, so they paid Seattle Computer Products’ Tim Paterson $50,000 for the rights to his existing QDOS (for Quick and Dirty Operating System) which quickly became MS-DOS (Disk Operating System). For most of the following decade and beyond Microsoft usually prospered just by taking someone else’s ideas, such as with spreadsheets (MS Excel = Lotus 1-2-3), groupware (MS Exchange = Lotus Notes), web browsers (Internet Explorer = Netscape Navigator), or word processors (MS Word = take your pick). Even Microsoft Windows originated from the development of a graphic user interface, or GUI, from XEROX.
In addition, the company has been sometime slow to recognize or act upon outside innovations or trends. Gates long dismissed the Internet until the Web began to spawn some very real threats to his iron grip on the OS market.
3. MICROSOFT’S SUCCESS DEPENDS UPON RESTRICTION OF COMPETITION, NOT BETTER PRODUCT. ^ Now we’re at the heart of the problem. As discussed, Microsoft has proven abysmal at creating new product markets for itself because of its inability to generate and nurture new ideas. The company usually stumbles when initially entering existing markets because it generally takes a couple of releases before it can get it right. How then did Gates reach the position he is in today?
Well, Microsoft reached market dominance in much the same way they attracted a government anti-trust suit: target the competition. This has generally taken any of three paths:
* BUY OUT THE COMPETITION ^ Remember the initial embarrassment of MS Access? Microsoft responded by buying FoxPro. The rumor at the time was that they only wanted to appropriate some of its technology for MS Access, but the first Windows version of FoxPro was released the next year. Of course that first version had its share of bugs. When the next generation version called MS Visual FoxPro was released toward the end of the decade, it kind of sucked too.
* UNDERCUT COMPETITORS ^ Once Gates couldn’t ignore the Internet anymore once he realized it had caught on with both general users and Wall Street and that the emerging browser technologies could form a very real threat to Windows. He responded by throwing large amounts of cash toward an in-house alternative to the dominant Netscape Navigator. Unfortunately for Netscape, their business model at the time was dependent upon a certain number of users actually paying for their product. However much it initially blew, Microsoft gave theirs away.
* BUNDLING ^ This is a method by which Microsoft forces the user to purchase their product over a competitor’s. Bundling has taken two different forms. The first is the Microsoft Office method. This is where you bundle a group of products together at a discount, such as productivity software, to discourage a customer from purchasing a competitor’s product that duplicates the functionality of one of the bundle’s applications. Microsoft Office includes MS Word, MS Excel, MS Access, and a few other projects. If you have to set up 20 PC’s at a company, why would disrupt the ease and savings of just loading all the Microsoft products in once shot with the additional trouble and expense of licensing and installing something else?
The other form of bundling is, or was far more insidious. Microsoft used to structure its deal with PC clone manufacturers so that they paid a licensing fee for MS-DOS on every machine they sold. Even if they didn’t install DOS on a machine, they still had to pay. This tends to discourage installation of other operating systems. The US Justice Department agreed and barred the policy 1994. Unfortunately, by then most of the competition such as IBM’s rival OS/2 had long been marginalized out of significance, or so Microsoft must have thought. Around then version 1.0 of LINUX was finally available and the first beta release of Netscape Navigator arrives a few months later.
Okay, this all now comes back to the ideas espoused by Free Software and Open Source. The law is clear concerning intellectual ownership of a given set of code. It belongs to its author or more likely the author’s employer. However, the owner can always make the choice to apply the core requirements of Open Source to the code and accept whatever follows. Often it can lead to the program’s success if not monetary enrichment for the original author. Linus Torvalds knew he couldn’t complete a full LINUX OS on his own so he put it on the Internet so others could help. Even if he could have finished it himself, would it have been able to catch on so quickly without the sense of community inherent in its legend and development?
Whatever the case, Torvalds has always received the credit for the LINUX juggernaut and respect and adoration of the now very large community seems to have been reward enough.
In Revolution OS we also meet the founder of the Free Software movement, Richard Stallman. The industry legend chose to apply his principles toward producing a community-developed operating system superior to Microsoft’s WINDOWS. Surprised when Torvalds beat him to the punch, Stallman still seems a little resentful that Linus turned out his original product first despite a later start and got to be the more famous of the two men. However, Stallman had quite a head-start and was using a completely different and harder to debug design than Torvalds. What does this prove about the movement? It demonstrates that no matter what your reputation and position, some person or group out there with a faster and better development team (or person) can always beat you to the punch and kick your ass.
How does this apply to Microsoft? GLAD YOU ASKED. We’ve seen the Microsoft is generally not capable of being either faster or better. They’ve logged a lot of court time in the past to defend their own intellectual copyrights while also claiming they have not stepped on anyone else’s. One such case involved a suit brought by Apple Computers claiming Microsoft misappropriated several of the Macintosh’s OS interface elements for MS Windows 3.0. Microsoft has been the first to dismiss the application of intellectual property rights toward conceptual design. In this arena, they would find themselves on extremely shaky ground. Now if Microsoft actually had to play by the rules of Open Source, most of their (anti-)competitive advantages would be taken away. If long ago Tim Paterson had chosen to contribute QDOS to the Free Software cause instead of selling it off to Gates, the CEO would have faced the possibility of somebody like Stallman producing his own version of DOS, one that might have very well been quite superior.
In the end, this is what the Free Software and Open Source movements were supposed to bring about; a community working together to producer better results. When it actually works it kind of restores your faith in your fellow man. Whether it can fully catch on is still in question. Most dictators aren’t too keen on the outcome of free elections having acting too long in their own self-interests. Sometimes you have just have to bend to the will of the people.
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Posted on February 14, 2002 in Features by Ron Wells
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