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Ryan Cartwright [opinions]

Why Microsoft should not lose (and free software will still win) [free-software] [microsoft] [advocacy] [philosophy]

There has always been a section of the free software community which has an anti-Microsoft agenda. It's almost like their mission statement is "It's not over until Microsoft is dead". Certainly there is a lot of feeling that if Microsoft went away, a lot of our problem would be over. But do Microsoft even need to "lose"; is there even a battle to be fought and if so what would constitute winning it?

Easy target

Let's face it Microsoft are an easy target when it comes to protesting against proprietary licencing. They are--after all--the largest and most obvious proponent of that particular form of consumer control. It's all too easy to view the fight to bring free software into the mainstream as a David and Goliath type battle, but I don't think it is. I don't think that the death of Microsoft would necessarily be a good thing for free software. I do think the death of some of their practices would be a good thing for computer users but--perhaps I am being optimistic here--I think free software can ultimately be good for companies like Microsoft.

What do I mean by "good"? Well I certainly don't mean it would allow them to continue as they are. I don't think Microsoft and their like can sustain their grip on a consumer market place which is demanding more and more ethical thinking from their suppliers. I can only speak from my own experience in the UK but I see a definite trend where the consumers are creating and responding to demands for ethics in their purchases. To counter this, I should say there has always been a growing trend with consumers to save money as well but I don't see free software licencing being a hindrance to that particular need. In fact it could drive it. Software companies saving on development costs can pass some of them onto customers.

As computers become ever more a consumer product, Microsoft are going to have to change a lot of their ways to survive. In fact I would go so far as to say they will probably have to change so much they would no longer be recognisable as the Microsoft we see today. Don't believe me? Look at IBM. Not long ago they were the corporate big guns, they were the ones that everybody watched first. Now they don't resemble the blue-suited corporation of the past. True, a lot of that might be marketing, but IBM have won hearts and minds by embracing free software.

Why Microsoft should not lose

Perhaps I am being a little confusing with the title there. I don't mean why Microsoft must not lose, I mean why they probably won't have to. Microsoft are a big player in the software world. I very much doubt they will disappear for good and it will be a waste of effort if we concentrated on trying to bring that about. Microsoft have survived a lot of things and they have picked up a lot of smart people along the way. True, some of those smart people have made some bad decisions, but hey, it shows they're human. It's soon going to be time for them to make some brave decisions or--they could lose a lot. There will always be a lot of people who will use Microsoft products and--although there are some better ones available--that is their choice. Many of them don't care if it's proprietary licenced, just like many of the people who buy instant coffee in the UK don't care if it's fairly traded. There is however a growing number of consumers who do care about their instant coffee, so many in fact that even the biggest producer, Nestlé (a company with almost as bad a reputation as MS) have brought out their own fairtrade instant. The market is changing due to consumer pressure and--in order to ensure survival--Nestlé have adapted; it's a small change but it's a start. Mark my words, the software market is changing and eventually companies like Microsoft will have to adapt in order to not lose out.

So what changes will they have to make? I believe they will eventually have to seriously consider freeing some of their products. I don't think they'll do it with Windows but certainly one of the larger ones will need to be freed. I don't think they'll do it straight away, I think they'll do what big corporations always do. First they'll try and change the way the market thinks so that they themselves don't have to change. They've been doing this for a while with things like the "get the facts" campaign. Once that starts to prove ineffective, they'll try to subvert the market in other ways--cue the OOXML/ISO fiasco. Once that fails, they'll try to pretend to support free software, they'll probably bring out something like "open licencing" or "freedom licencing", which will be close to free software but will omit one of the four freedoms in some way ( probably freedom 0 ). Once that fails they'll release a fairly worthless product as free software or they'll dual licence a product and the free one will be three versions behind the proprietary one. Finally they will capitulate and will release something like IE as free software. It will fly off the servers and there will be a lot of criticism from this side of the fence.

At this point free software will work for them. They'll get feedback, proper bug reports and a community which will work with them. If they do it properly. If they really do free their code, if they stop trying to generate revenue from something they did in the past. If they decide to treat the community that is here as partners in producing better software. If they do all those things--it just might work, they won't have to die and they could survive. How? By selling services, by offering proper support. By freeing their customers they may just find more of them stick around. So Microsoft--if you are listening--wake up! Things are changing and you could do yourselves a big favour by skipping some of the steps above and looking at how free software licences can help you and your customers.

Am I dreaming?

So am I in cloud-cuckoo land here? Do I really think Microsoft will make a significant free software release? Do you think they can, do you think they will? What would you do if it did happen? Ask yourself what is the ultimate aim of free software advocacy: to destroy proprietary software companies or to see _all _software free?

I would love to say that the what I've outlined above will happen--I'm in an optimistic mood today. However I can only say that it might happen, it could happen and it probably should happen. In order for it to actually happen it requires a transformation of Microsoft--and others like them--into something they are not even close to right now. Will that happen? I hope so.


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