Originally Published: Monday, 29 November 1999 Author: Matt Michie
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Don't Call It a Comeback

Once again the Linux community is a buzz with the excitement of yet more Linux "successes". Practically every journalist returning from Comdex couldn't hold back their praises of the little OS that could. Microsoft appears to be getting their well-deserved thrashing from the United States Department of Justice. Linux companies are going public left and right. Many seem to feel Linux is truly poised for world domination!...

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Once again the Linux community is a buzz with the excitement of yet more Linux "successes". Practically every journalist returning from Comdex couldn't hold back their praises of the little OS that could. Microsoft appears to be getting their well-deserved thrashing from the United States Department of Justice. Linux companies are going public left and right. Many seem to feel Linux is truly poised for world domination!

However, I find this attitude to be short-sighted and counter-productive. The decision to take Linux into the business world has been made. Linux is now thrust into a place where the rules are wildly different than what the community is used to. In order to thrive and succeed in this new environment Linux companies must adopt some of the proven successful strategies that companies such as Microsoft have used to gain market share.

Many of us often forget that taking a company public means that you now have an obligation to the shareholders to make money. Is there anything wrong or inherently evil about this? Absolutely not! So far, it's been great for Linux, and doesn't show any signs of letting up.

But it is now time for these Linux companies to gain a little healthy paranoia. It is hard enough to make money off free software, but Microsoft is still a major contender. Most in the community point to the findings of fact in the Microsoft anti-trust trial and say, "Microsoft is a dying beast. Linux is the way of the future, and even Wall Street recognizes this."

It disturbs me that no one is giving Microsoft their due credit. I've attempted to gain some insight into some of their strategy by treating them as a black box. I can see the inputs and outputs and by examining how the inputs are modified I can infer some of what is happening inside the company.

What are my conclusions? To me, it is obvious that Bill Gates and Microsoft have realized that the Windows monopoly days are drawing to a close. Further, they don't really care. Anyone with a bit of insight must have realized that we have reached a so-called inflection point in the software industry. Free software has reached a point where it can no longer be easily dismissed. The Internet and embedded devices are increasingly usurping the role of the traditional desktop computer. In a world where the desktop is relegated to a lesser role, a desktop monopoly becomes irrelevant.

Microsoft must also realize this. Of course, they will try to hold the line and maintain their Windows empire for as long as possible. But, by looking at their investment strategy, it becomes apparent they are focusing more on gaining a new monopoly on the new playing field.

Examine MSNBC, Hotmail.com, Expedia.com, MSN.com, and so on, for some insight into what the new focus really is. Most importantly though, is their multi-billion dollar investment in AT&T. Linux is already starting to make the operating system into a commodity. With the Internet turning into a gold rush atmosphere, the obvious place to strike it rich is not to "mine gold" by selling operating systems, but to sell "shovels and picks", owning the infrastructure the miners need to operate. Whoever owns the medium and the media of the Internet will make the most money. Simple fact.

Now also consider how inept and inexperienced the Microsoft attorneys were throughout the anti-trust trial. Surely part of this was Microsoft arrogance. But more insidiously, I believe they really didn't care if they lost. MS has now "lost" the trial which focused more on bundling Internet Explorer with Windows 98 more than anything. Now they can enter into settlement negotiations with the DOJ and come to an agreement on desktop monopolies.

Somehow, I suspect the lawyers representing Microsoft in these negotiations will be far more competent than the trial attorneys. Their goal will be to minimize the damage caused in the settlements and to prevent the DOJ from looking into the budding Microsoft Internet business. This is what they really care about. They can ultimately make some sacrifices to the government on desktops which are now a commodity item anyway, and begin the shift into the new paradigm. The goal of bundling Internet Explorer has been reached. Netscape was smashed as a competitor. It is time to move on to new competitors such as Linux.

Bill Gates and crew know how much IBM was hurt in the 1980's by anti-trust investigations. They can not afford to have the same thing happen to Microsoft. They may even believe they are innocent, but they also are smart enough to remember that charges against IBM were also dropped. Better for MS to get the investigators off their back with a seeming sacrifice than to miss out on the next big thing.

My most fervent hope is we don't have a war within the Linux business community. With each new company bringing a distribution to market, the chances for fragmentation increase. This is the perfect scenario for Microsoft. While the Linux folks are busy infighting among themselves, they are busy slurping up the Internet business.

I hope the Linux business community can gain a healthy sense of paranoia and business sense without fragmenting Linux. We'll see what happens.

Matt Michie is a Linux Guru wannabe and student living in New Mexico. He loves to get e-mail at mmichie@linux.com and maintains a web site at http://web.nmsu.edu/~mmichie.





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