Menu Home End users Hacking Humour Interviews Opinons Reviews All articles Issues Books
Free Software magazine
Terry Hancock [opinions]

Microsoft and free software? I don't think so... [free-software] [microsoft] [proprietary-software] [microsoft-monopoly]

Microsoft turn to free software? That'll be the day. Some have suggested that Microsoft might embrace free software and thus resolve the present conflict. That actually would be a terrific strategy for them, but I don't think that Microsoft is smart enough to do it.

Habits of the juggernauts

Corporations are creatures of habit. They aren't human beings, something that we need to be reminded of constantly; as humans we have evolved to deal with humans, and so we anthropomorphize everything. But while a corporation has some of the rudimentary characteristics of a person, it isn't a person.

Corporations are creatures of habit

In fact, if you were to put the characteristics of a corporation into an individual being, you'd wind up with a Stsho (a fictional being from C.J. Cherryh's Chanur series, which I suspect was inspired by this very idea). For those who haven't read it, the point is: "alien" and "exasperating".

But in any case, corporations don't change their "minds" as easily as humans do, or at least not in the same ways. They're likely to change markets or products, but to fundamentally change strategy is very difficult for them.

That's because corporations are actually made up of lots of minds, and changing strategy means changing a lot of people's behavior and fundamental beliefs (which, as you no doubt know, is Hard, with a capital "H"). Changing products or markets is as simple as opening a new division and hiring new people—something a human would find hard, but a corporation can do at the drop of a hat.

So, I'd suspect it's much more likely that Microsoft will shift sideways, perhaps into its media interests or some other prospect, rather than try to change "its ways".

The plight of the pacesetter

Of course, Windows may eventually become free software. The optimum time to do it, though, is right before ReactOS manages to produce a fully working clone.

I've seen this pattern happen several times with software packages. Somebody has a non-free package that is well-liked, but it's non-free, so free software developers put enormous time and effort into "reinventing the wheel" (the enormous waste cost of our present IP regime), in order to liberate that particular piece of functionality.

As long as there is no free software alternative, the proprietary company can continue to milk the marketplace, so they never choose to free license.

As long as there is no free software alternative, the proprietary company can continue to milk the marketplace

But of course, as soon as blood, sweat, and tears have been shed by free developers to re-create all of that function from scratch, the market value of the proprietary product plummets, and the only way to recover the income is to put a free-license on the proprietary product.

The proprietary company then gets enormous kudos for "magnanimously" freeing its product as a "gift" to the community, and comes out smelling like roses, even though their behavior was actually a lot more like the stuff you grow the roses in.

Of course, that sidelines the free project; making all of its effort "wasted", in the sense of "unused". Although we might rationally say that it wasn't a waste, it must really feel like it was to the people who put in all that work.

Worse, of course, this is no doubt appreciated by many would-be software category liberators before they manage to create a good enough "pacesetter" product to force the proprietary competitor to turn to a free software strategy. Which of course, leads to an extension in how long the proprietary product maintains its stranglehold on the marketplace.

ReactOS is still an "alpha", after more than 10 years of development

ReactOS, after all, is still an "alpha", after more than 10 years of development. And even if they completely succeeded, many people would run the product down as a "knock-off", completely missing the real value of such a project. It must be hard.

Windows, or something like it

I suspect that in this way, we'll eventually see Windows (or something like it) become available under a free license. If Microsoft wanted to really buy its way into community acceptance, it could do it pretty cheaply by donating the entire Vista codebase to the ReactOS project.

That would alleviate the bad-blood I mentioned in the previous section (because the interloper would become part of the pacesetter rather than competing with it—properly crediting the people behind it for their effort).

It would also relieve Microsoft of the burden of support a product which is rapidly becoming irrelevant. Not a lot of people are switching from earlier Windows to GNU/Linux, but not a lot of people are switching to Vista either. And while that means Windows still has a lion-size mindshare, its marketshare is not living up to its own expectations.

Strategically, Microsoft should release Windows code under a free license only when it is absolutely irrelevant to its future business plans. But it is possible that that time is now.

Even without it, though, since the Windows OS is stagnating, with few people wanting to "upgrade" to Vista, that means a lot of software will probably continue to be written for earlier versions. And that makes good emulation a no-longer-moving target for ReactOS, which increases the chance of them catching up.

And even if, by some miracle, Microsoft manages to get users to switch to Vista, selling the next upgrade is going to be that much harder. And Microsoft has already hit the point of diminishing returns within the proprietary development model (which is why Vista was way overdue and buggy). Not to mention that even relatively clueless end users are starting to pick up on the fact that, marketing hype aside, each generation of Windows is designed to restrict their freedom more and more.

Kicking and screaming

On the other hand, I'm not so sure that Microsoft will take the strategically optimal route. They've gotten awfully accustomed to blaming their customers and would-be customers for their own failings, and have increasingly turned to legal and political maneuvering as a way to stay in business. But those are desperation measures: continuing on that path will drive them into the ground.


Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.