This is about choice.

Adapting to the Market's Message

This is about choice.

- Neo, to The Architect, in The Matrix Reloaded

In the middle of 1995, when the Netscape browser and Linux were both at versions 1.x, Newt Gingrich told Esther Dyson, "The key to a monopoly is to get in the middle of an intersection and charge rent." That line inspired "A Bulldozer Through the Intersection", my 1996 interview with Craig Burton on the occasion of Netscape's acquisition of Tim House and the LDAP development team from the University of Michigan. Here's how Craig described the effect LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) would have on Microsoft's plans to control the Internet:

Microsoft built its entire services strategy on what it thought was a titanium vise. One side was an object-oriented filesystem called OSS, which collapsed the directory into the filesystem. This was Cairo. The other side was a distributed application development framework called OLE, which they owned lock, stock and barrel. They would squeeze those together and the Netscapes of the world would squoosh like jello.

But the Internet blew the jaws of that vise apart. When Microsoft tightened the jaws of that vice, they bent wide open. The world has shifted, and Microsoft is not going to dominate it, at least not by giving people no choice but to use Microsoft. All they can do is what they've shown they can do extremely well: retool for the new reality. They have no choice but to embrace the LDAP business and extend into it. Just like they did with Java.

Ah yes, Java.

The problem with Java was it is embraceable but not extendable, at least not the way Microsoft tends to extend things. Java was and still is a cross-platform development and runtime environment, well-suited to the growing Internet ecosystem. It's also owned and controlled by Sun Microsystems. When Microsoft extended Java in ways that worked only on Windows, Sun sued. That was in 1997. There was a settlement of some sort in January 2001, but Sun sued Microsoft on antitrust grounds in 2002. Then, finally, in April of this year, the two companies buried their hatchets as Microsoft agreed to pay Sun a total of $1.95 billion dollars. The agreement covered technical collaboration as well as legal issues.

This wasn't your usual settlement worked out between lawyers. Talks began last summer over golf between Sun's Scott McNealy and Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, who have been friends and rivals since high school. They expanded to involve many meetings and phone calls, some involving Bill Gates himself. The talks expanded beyond antitrust issues to include patents, which also were covered by the settlement

This also wasn't your usual Barney agreements over technology--one of those "I love you, you love me" statements backed by no substantive cause for movement by either party. At the end of negotiations, the two companies agreed to provide access to each other's server technologies, including operating system, e-mail and database software. That item counted for $350 million of the $1.95 billion, but it also allows Sun to pay Microsoft for incorporating the latter's technologies. Sun will license communications protocols for Windows, under terms of the Justice Department consent decree. Microsoft agreed to play nice with Java, while continuing to support its rogue implementation. And, most significantly, the two companies committed to make Java and Microsoft's .Net work together.

After news broke on April 5, rivers of ink and oceans of pixels were spilled over what the agreement really meant and how "collaboration" might work between two companies that, until the day before, seemed ready to spill each other's blood at any cost. Who were the "winners and losers" here? Was Sun still headed for oblivion? The company also announced plans to lay off 3,300 people in the same time frame. Clearly, both companies despised IBM and considered Linux a threat, even though Sun already had embraced Linux in various ways. What were the new teams and players? Who were the new warring factions? What were the weapons, the battlefields?

It's too easy to describe these kinds of things with the boxes of words provided by sports and war metaphors. A better metaphorical system is environmental. By looking at computing as a world rather than as a battlefield or a sports arena, we can see operating systems and development environments as overlapping ecosystems with larger contexts.

For a little guidance on this, listen to John McPhee in Rising from the Plains, explaining where most of our iron and steel came from:

Although life had begun in the form of anaerobic bacteria early in the Archean Eon, photosynthetic bacteria did not appear until the middle Archean and were not abundant until the start of the Proterozoic. The bacteria emitted oxygen. The atmosphere changed. The oceans changed. The oceans had been rich in dissolved ferrous iron, in large part put into the seas by extruding lavas of two billion years. Now with the added oxygen the iron became ferric, insoluble, and dense. Precipitating out, it sank to the bottom as ferric sludge, where it joined the lime muds and silica muds and other seafloor sediments to form, worldwide, the banded-iron formations that were destined to become rivets, motorcars and cannons. The is was the iron of the Mesabi Range, the Australian iron of the Hammerslee Basin, the iron of Michigan, Wisconsin, Brazil. More than ninety percent of the iron ever mined in the world has come from Precambrian banded-iron formations. Their ages date broadly from twenty-five hundred to two thousand million years before the present. The transition that produced them--from a reducing to an oxidizing atmosphere and the associated radical change in the chemistry of the oceans--would be unique. It would never repeat itself. The earth would not go through that experience twice.

The world of computing has changed profoundly in the past nine years. The new world we live in now has base conditions that were absent when Sun and Microsoft were forming in the late 70s and remained absent until the late 90s. These new conditions are both global and personal in scope and meaning, because they involve the Internet on one hand and personal computing on the other.

Today's world primarily consists of the Net itself. It has grown to consume and subsume the phone system, computer networks and everything else that serves to connect people and devices. The lithification of the Net is analogous to the formation of banded iron from the Archaeon seas. And it has been precipitated by countless individuals as well as the large companies that issue statements and make headlines.

The Net grew because it embodies the principles of NEA: Nobody owns it, Everybody can use it and Anybody can improve it. Linux and the whole LAMP suite (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP, Perl, Python and so on) have been symbiotes in the Net's ecosystem from their beginnings. They have contributed immeasurably to the Net's growth and to its ability to support countless activities. Like it or not, Linux is part of the solution both Sun and Microsoft must embrace as they try to figure out what they'll do together.

Sun always has had a deep understanding of networking. This was manifest not only in slogans such as "the network is the computer", but also in Sun's early advocacy of the Net and the Web. I learned about both for the first time from John Gage of Sun.

Microsoft always has understood personal computing just as deeply. No company has done more to make computing personal--or continues to do more today--than Microsoft.

It makes sense to see both companies come together at this point in time, but not because of anything either company happens to be doing right now. Instead, it makes sense because the Net is growing thicker and more solid. Its infrastructure includes more and more useful and ubiquitous protocols and other standards originating in the resourceful work of allied individuals, rather than in any company's corporate agenda. For example, while Microsoft makes a big deal about Web services in its propaganda about .Net, RSS and other systems for deploying practical Web services have been developed and deployed by other companies large and small--and by countless individuals whose leadership comes from themselves and one another. The Web services market today is a conversation no company can dominate.

The same thing is happening even inside corporate development processes. Although Sun has yet to respond positively to calls by IBM and Eric S. Raymond (in separate open letters) to open source Java, the overall evolution of Java is in an open direction that cannot be reversed. The same goes not only for .Net but for the development of Longhorn, Microsoft's next major operating system. The most interesting and engaged voices coming from Microsoft these days are not those of its leaders but of its rank & file technologists. Robert Scoble, whose Web log is read by thousands every day, is a Longhorn evangelist who clearly does his best to engage the market in constructive conversation. Robert's boss, Lenn Pryor, who describes himself in one of his Web logs as "a punk ass kid from D.C.", put together a site called Channel 9 that's based on the principles of The Cluetrain Manifesto and the teachings of a certain Linux Journal senior editor.

The real story about the Sun-Microsoft deal also was told by CEOs of both companies at the time of the announcement, although it received scant attention in the sports and war coverage that followed. One exception was The Wall Street Journal, which put it this way:

the economic pressures of the past few years have slowed the spigot of corporate spending on technology, prompting stiffer competition among vendors and giving corporate buyers leverage to insist that warring suppliers make their products work together. "The customer is in charge," Mr. McNealy says simply in explaining his rapprochement with Microsoft. That realization, a truism in more-mature industries, turned out to be the most powerful force in persuading the companies to make peace.

The market, comprised of countless individuals who had grown tired of closed systems that wouldn't interoperate, has been only more and more empowered by the Network, by Linux and by other creations that primarily were the results of Demand rather than Supply. The message was simple: "Battling environments cannot survive in a world where any and all of us can solve our own problems. Our biggest problems for many years have been vendor 'solutions' that don't interoperate and that create dependencies customers don't want. If you don't help solve those problems, we'll keep solving them for ourselves. We all have bulldozers now, and we know how to use them."

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


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Re: Adapting to the Market's Message

Anonymous's picture

OK, here are some examples of Linux in the real world:

Re: Adapting to the Market's Message

Anonymous's picture

I see a different future. While clearly the customer is in control now more than ever, but Microsoft will not easily let go of those reigns. A body in motion tends to stay in motion...

Rather, I think Microsoft is positioning itself to battle Linux. To do so, they cross-license IP with Sun for the well-known Solarais functionality, stability, and functionality. The result might be a new OS which is a hybrid of Windows and Solaris, running on AMD64 chips customized by Sun.

Exit Strategies

Anonymous's picture

I keep bringing this up to people.

When thinking of adopting a new program, they should consider their "exit strategy" if things don't go as planned.

Vendors like to provide ways to get your data out of a competitors format and into theirs, but don't seem to be as gung ho about providing you with ways to get your data out of their formats. This shoud tell you something about a vendor who does this.

Standard data formats are a big deal to me at this point. I have many clients I would like to move over to linux but accounting/pos applications are slowing things up. It is going to be expensive to move from their current accounting apps to a new one. I don't want to recommend this move only to have to recommend another expensive move to another app in a few years.

The data needs to be standard or easily convertible. Does anyone have any ideas or solutions?

I also see this comming up with architects and their CAD files in the future. These "lock-in" plays have got to stop.

all the best,


(+1)/10 to email me

Re: Exit Strategies

Anonymous's picture

Some fields already have standard CAD data formats. For example, electronic manufacturing has the CAMX standards (

Hopefully we see more of this in other problem domains in the future...

Re: Adapting to the Market's Message

Anonymous's picture

No one can dispute the power of 'true standards' here. There are lessons here also for Linux companies who think that they can extend true standards. Lets work to make standards a reality on the Desktop by merging KDE and GNOME. With true standards there are no gray areas...

Re: Adapting to the Market's Message

Anonymous's picture

The discussion of standards have no relation to, directly or
indirectly KDE and Gnome, both of which DO adhere to standards
of - User Interface Design, DOM, Messaging protocols, etc.

I suggest a quick lesson on "technology standards", "protocols"
and the word "de-facto".

Re: Adapting to the Market's Message

Anonymous's picture

>I suggest a quick lesson on "technology standards", "protocols"
and the word "de-facto".

Don't forget "incompatibilities".

Re: Adapting to the Market's Message

Anonymous's picture

Re: Adapting to the Market's Message

Anonymous's picture

why do people keep talking about that?

there is no point in merging kde and gnome, makeing them talk the same language when it comes to cut/copy and paste and allso drag and drop is a standard but i dont see how makeing one desktop helps. when you pick a distro you most likely stick to that distro for life and therefor allready have become connected to one desktop. the os is still the same.

a standard is a file format or protocoll not a gui set as guis are eyecandy and what one person see as attractive someone else sees as ugly.

Pity Sun's write once Java dream, which Microsoft continues to s

NZheretic's picture

Sun's CEOs claim that they need to maintain tight control over the Java library source code and standards to insure Java cross vendor "write-once" portability. As Doc points out, this was the main point for Sun's lawsuit against Microsoft. In fact, in the DOJ case the federal appeal court did find that Microsoft had deceived Java developers, which the court decided was in breach of the Sherman Antitust act.
For Sun to call their settlement anything but a sellout, Sun could at least persuaded Microsoft to create or adopt a modern release of Java to replace the 1997 eon MSJava JVM. Instead Microsoft gained the right to extends life of its Java Virtual Machine to December 31, 2007. Microsoft have stated that it will not be improving ( or updating ) the old JVM and Microsoft's J# "upgrade path" still uses non-standard interfaces for GUI's and .NET libraries. This leaves Microsoft free to play the old "standard" embrace, extend and enclose anti-competitive tactics.
Sun' s James Gosling claims, in response to some slashdot flamage, that though the new settlement, Sun has gained the right to selectively access Microsoft's Communications Protocol Program. This ablity to selectively pick and choose and other "flexabilities" was a detail left out of Sun's press release, and more interestingly, the recent joint status report on Microsoft's complicance with the final antitrust judgement. The EU Competition Commision still has some questions for Microsoft on the disclosure of interface information.

Standard JVMs

Anonymous's picture