Should We Boycott Microsoft? Can We?

Captain Charles Boycott was an unfortunate chap. Not only was he the object of prolonged social ostracism, but his name has passed into history as both a noun and a verb describing that action. At the moment, the idea is much on people's minds because of suggestions that the Beijing Olympic games should be boycotted, but here I want to discuss something quite different: whether the open source community should be boycotting Microsoft, and if that is even possible.

In part, the trigger for this is Microsoft's recent behaviour during the approval process for its OOXML document format. As I've written elsewhere on Linux Journal, it seems to me that on this occasion Microsoft has crossed the line of acceptability: not only has it stooped to just about every trick in the book to win “approval”, it has broken the entire ISO organisation in the process, with huge, long-term collateral damage.

But if that provided the immediate stimulus for the idea of boycotting Microsoft, there are other, deeper reasons why I think the open source community should consider the move. Observing the company over the last year of so, it's evident that its policy towards open source has shifted. Where before it fell back on crude invective – it's “communism”, it's a “cancer”, it's “un-American”, etc. - today it has completely re-thought its approach, and taken a far more subtle – and hence dangerous - tack.

Now, it seems, Microsoft just can't snuggle up close enough to those cute little open sourcies. Bryan Kirschner, Director of Platform Community at Microsoft, wrote: “I describe my job as “helping Microsoft and open source to grow together,” while Ray Ozzie, Chief Software Architect of the company said: “as people have been using [open source] more and more, the nature of interoperability between our systems and other systems has increased.” But the most revealing comments have come from Brad Smith, who rejoices in the glorious job title of “Senior Vice President, General Counsel, Corporate Secretary, Legal & Corporate Affairs, Microsoft”:

I do want to say this: We at Microsoft respect and appreciate the important role that open source software plays in our industry. We respect and we appreciate the passion and the great contribution that open source developers make in our industry. We respect and we appreciate the important role that open source software plays for our customers, customers who almost always have heterogeneous computer networks with software and hardware and services that, as you all well know, come from multiple vendors.

But as well as all the respect and appreciation that Brad wanted to express, he also has an interesting explanation of Microsoft's current world-view:

we believe in the importance of building a bridge that makes it possible for the different parts of our industry to work together. We believe it needs to be a bridge that respects the diversity of different business models. We believe in a bridge that is scalable, that is affordable, that is workable, and that doesn't try to move people from one island over the bridge to another but let’s everybody do what they love to do and respects that.

Live and let live: what could be more reasonable?

But let's listen to Brad again as he explains what that means in practical terms:

That is a hard bridge to build, and yet I will say I believe today more than ever that it is a bridge we need to build. And I very much value the work and the conversations we were able to have at Novell when we started to build that bridge in November of 2006.

Ah, Novell. And what lies at the heart of that joint bridge-building with Novell?

we believe that patents are best sorted out by industry leaders so that developers and customers don't have to deal with these issues themselves. We as industry leaders should take it upon ourselves to sort these things out.

When we worked things out with Novell, we did it with an eye towards succeeding in ensuring that the developers who were creating the software for Novell would not have to worry about this set of things, nor would their customers.

So there we have it. You shouldn't worry about those silly old software patents because Microsoft and Novell have sorted everything out for you: all you have to do is carry on coding.

Except that it's not quite that simple. Microsoft's vision of “live and let live” is predicated on its continuing use of software patents, and of the open source side letting Microsoft and Novell handle all the tiresome implications for open source. In effect, though, this amounts to recognising Microsoft's patents, and accepting its “solutions” for the open source community. “Live and let live” turns out to be tantamount to accepting Microsoft's right to file, own and use software patents, which, in its turn, means accepting they apply to the open source world.

Reasonable as Brad's position of “live and let live” might sound – and remember, he is not just a lawyer, but the top lawyer at Microsoft, and one of the cleverest and most articulate people in the industry – it is actually a trick. “Live and let live” on these terms represents a capitulation to Microsoft's worldview that software patents are valid. And once that it accepted, it essentially gives Microsoft the power to control open source for the duration of those patents.

This is why I think the open source world should boycott Microsoft, however much the latter might profess its respect and appreciation. Its recent overtures are, in fact, nothing less than the start of the old “embrace, extend and extinguish” cha-cha. First, it “embraces” the wonderfulness of open source; then it “extends” open source through deals like the one it signed with Novell, effectively adding software patents to the free software mix; and then, one day, it “extinguishes” by changing the terms of the licences it grants.

The question then becomes: assuming the open source world wants to boycott Microsoft, can it? Clearly it can't through refusing to buy its products, but it seems to me that it can if it returns to the roots of the word and begins to ostracise Microsoft socially. In practice, that means no more chummy get-togethers to discuss “interoperability”; no more joint projects on “optimising” open source code on the Windows platform; and generally, no more trips to Seattle or to Microsoft conferences.

What good will that do? Well, for a start it will put an end to all this oleaginous respect and appreciation nonsense, and return things to a more honest relationship in the wake of the OOXML scandal. It will cease to provide Microsoft with opportunities to blur the boundaries between real open source and all the compromised forms it is promoting through its “bridge-building” exercises with companies like Novell.

Above all, it will send a message to the company that the open source world is not falling for the old “embrace, extend and extinguish” trick, and that if Microsoft really wants collaborate, "live and let live" is simply not enough, because of the asymmetric bargain it implies. As a basic pre-condition of working together with open source, the company needs to accept free software's absolute foundation – the ability to share all its code in any way and with anyone – and that, by definition, means no software patents whatsoever.



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forget "open source" it's "free as in freedom"

digitalfreedomrider's picture

The more I see, the more I think that Richard Stallman has been right all along. The term "open source" has become meaningless...even Microsoft was able to get some of its licenses "OSI approved"...and now it's cuddling up to certain so-called "open source" companies.

When we talk about "open source", we use language that removes the politics of software freedom from our vocabulary...and all kinds of corporate scoundrels can claim to be "open source".

Microsoft will never ever in a hundred years cuddle up the concept of "software freedom"...because that means something...and Stallman set out the very principles of those freedoms in the early 1990's.

By promoting software freedom, that by its very essence means boycotting Microsoft.

IMHO, "open source" is dead. Freedom is alive.

Boycott who?

Mr. Shawn H. Corey's picture

I've been boycotting M$ since 2000 when I bought my PowerBook G4. And I've been running Ubuntu on it since 5.04. The nicest thing about it is that it is very quiet out here on the fringe; there's no malware. Well, that's not quite true. Occasionally some web site tries in install some but Firefox just dies and I know not to visit that site again.

The sad part is I can play Second Life or WoW. I just have to waste my time reading the Linux Journal. So sad, not. ;) -_^

Re: Boycott who?

Rich's picture

@Mr. Shawn H. Corey: no you haven't been boycotting Microsoft: you bought into them when you bought your PowerBook G4! Surely you cannot be unaware of Microsoft's share in Apple ownership?

Although this article seems to be aimed at developers and home users, it's equally applicable to business -- but in that realm, it would be very difficult for a company to boycott Microsoft: that kind of decision has to come from the top. The Ernie Ball string company recently managed this ( after being stung for "piracy" when it had simply failed to uninstall unused copies of software on reassigned machines.

The larger the company, the more difficult it would be; because business decisions on computing equipment don't take the sensible approach of specifying a file format to use: they specify software packages, essentially to make it easy to associate a budgetary cost to a decision. (Oh yes, the specification may well specify a file format, but it will be in terms of the sole software package that produces that file format: so "Microsoft Access file", "Microsoft Word file", "Oracle database", etc.) This is what produces vendor lock-in; which is exactly how many software vendors continue to turn a profit despite the existence of FOSS.

There is another side to this though: OpenOffice just doesn't cut it; in the eyes of some. My place of work uses some of the very advanced features that Excel provides, and OO.o simply cannot keep up. It should be the case that these features should be extinguished from day-to-day business practices -- the features used are cryptic and difficult to learn or debug, and would be better served in the long run by other, more transparent means -- but that's not going to happen so long as people try to justify their existence by being the resident "Excel expert", or some such. I would confidently use OO.o and the open file formats it supports; if only it were allowed to be used.

Boycott. . .

Kelly's picture

I submit that boycotting M$ -- their subsidiaries and partners, including Novell and Dell -- is a wonderful and powerful idea and method.

Boycotts hurt a company's bottom line and that is M$'s Achilles heel. The top dogs at M$ do not care one whit about anything or anybody except their own (their internal emails over the Vista fisaco say that much):

a. Power,
b. Status; and,
c. Wealth.

That is all Ballmer, Gates, Smith, etc., really care about.

A boycott takes time and patience. We of the free software world must have both or we shall fail. We are not going to change M$ overnight. Indeed, I suspect we shall never be able to change M$. I believe the ultimate outcome of a successful boycott against M$ and all business partners will be the complete and total destruction of M$.

We of the free software world must accept nothing less.

M$ will fight back and fight back dirty. Consider the recent ISO approval of OOXML as imutable evidence of same.

I submit the boycott start now and not stop until M$ is dead -- no surrender -- dead.

Remember, not all snakes are rattlesnakes -- but every rattlesnake is a snake.

Off with M$'s head.


Hollow words

dh's picture

A boycott won't be effective unless those doing it are willing to go to the point that they are affected as well.

A bunch of people not buying or supporting M$ products isn't going to make Bill or Steve so much as blink.

For a boycott to be effective it needs to draw attention to itself and force others to rethink their actions.

For example, Only shop with retailers that don't use M$ products in their cash registers. Only use banks and gas stations that don't use MS products in their automated tellers, or for their pos / teller stations.

Tell these businesses (over and over) why you are no longer a customer (yes you have to go out of your way and mail the managers and corporate offices). If they don't know why they are losing your business then the tactic will not be effective. If their mailboxes aren't overflowing they won't care.

If a large number of people won't make the commitment to alter their consumption patterns then the protest is doomed to fail. Let the media know why you are avoiding these businesses. You also need to let the businesses you patronize know what you feel, why they got your business.

How about going further, don't send your kids to a school where open source software installations are not at least in parity with proprietary solutions. Pull them out until things are changed.

The schools have become a major stealth advertising ground for M$ products. Our kids are taught that microsoft is computing, that word and powerpoint are needed skills (not word processing or presentation skills). Not only that but M$ usually gets a tax writeoff for this free advertising. (Here school, we'll donate this software to you...) We end up paying the taxes they have weaseled out of.

I could go on but I think you get the Idea.

Will a boycott work? Maybe,but only if those supporting it are willing to do more than just avoid a product or two. If it is effective then we as a society will see alot more change than just 1 company doing business differently. People will have to become more important than personal wealth. Ideas can no longer be considered property.

I'll stop now, I'm sure nobody is reading any more.

How about boycotting IBM for the same reason?

Anonymous's picture

Why not boycott IBM for their behaviour during the OOXML process? They published a lot of material against OOXML, much of which was factually incorrect. And I'm not talking about things where it could be a mere difference of opinion. I mean things where you read IBM's claim about the contents of the spec, then go read the spec yourself, and you find that IBM flat out lied about it. That's as big as an affront to the integrity of the standards process as anything Microsoft has been accused of.

Boycotting IBM

Anonymous's picture

Examples?, or just a throw away comment?

boycott MS, Hell YES!

Charlie Bradley's picture

I've been ms free for a long time now and every year I get a couple more people to switch. Just did a vista wipe and kubuntu install the other day. I think I have at least two more on the hook. The more linux users talk about linux the more linux users there will be!
Charlie Bradley
Open Source Solutions
We Don't do Windows
Taos NM
p.s. I love the math question.

there's another way to

Anonymous's picture

there's another way to boycott MS: since two years I refuse to even look at a problem on a winDOS machine. The choice is: fix it yourself, pay someone to do it or I install Linux for free.
At work I refuse to fix even the smallest problem which shows up, call support and bitch how much time is lost again with this lousy system. Whenever it's important my laptop boots Fedora 8 from a USB stick unless I get one of these sick docx documents I have to convert with Monopoly Office to a doc to be able to use it in OOo. Documents are always send in odf/ods/odp and if someone complains it goes as PDF with a link to


That's my strategy as well

Sum Yung Gai's picture

I just pulled this off with one person who asked me for help. She said, "my computer's broken, how much will it cost to fix it?" Turned out the Windows 2000 on it was hopelessly broken. Reinstall was required. And she didn't have the original CD.

I said, "OK, it'll cost this much to fix your Windows. Or...I can install Ubuntu Linux instead, and it won't cost you anything." She took the second option (big surprise), and she now has a shiny new Ubuntu Hardy Heron install.

This is my way of boycotting Microsoft.


boycotting M$

Brother D's picture

That's exactly what the local computer shop is doing. The proprietars have become so fed up with proving licenses that they are custom building
Linux distros and encouraging people to switch. Free software and no hassle. Ubuntu is a complete, viable OS, for the average person, and with
WINE (and maybe ReactOS one day), you can do almost anything you could do with XP.

Sub Companies

Bryan James's picture

The other thing we need to do, and it may be somewhere that I've missed. Is list all the sub-companies MS has their paws in.

For example I travel a lot and love to listen to audio books, however I had to cancel my subscription to after I found out that MS owns about 55% of them. What other ways are we supporting MS without even knowing it due to things like this? Is there a list (partial or complete) with corporations that MS has a stake in?


Kevin Power's picture

Yes boycott at all levels and in all areas would be a excellent idea. The big question is how and when to do just that. I have been boycotting M$ for over 5 years at least by using the Linux OS at work and at home. I also use and teach the use of open source software applications in areas of communication, computer hardware/software, design and manufacturing.
Mr Kevin Power CET


Josh Adams's picture

Yeah, I guess I've boycotted them for two years or so at least...I've run linux before plenty, but that was the first time in my adult life (after the job that I got in web design that made me switch) that I ripped windows off of all of my computers and just ran ubuntu. All of my company's servers. All employee computers.

It just hasn't occurred to me that spending $300 per person to be able to...write documents...with a computer... was a good idea.


Anonymous's picture

I agree to the boycott.

In India during the British Rule we had been exploited and ruled over for years. Mahatma Ghandhi has taken a oath to boycott of all british good, taxes, british government position. We had won our freedom by boycott.

Totally refuse to use their tools and software. Do not give them any power or control over you. The more you give them, the more of a slave you become. Do not accept or encourage such behaviour.

Boycott is very effective weapon for struggle against freedom. The more you use the evil doers goods, the more control they have over you. Lets take this struggle for freedom to the next level by boycotting Microsoft once and for all.

Boycott? I'd so no to any

Anonymous's picture

Boycott? I'd so no to any open, announced action. Boycott quietly by not using their stuff - fine. That will happen naturally if open source stuff is good enough.
The real leverage is elsewhere: catch M'soft using open source stuff and not complying with the terms then sue for their profits plus punitive damages. That's where Microsoft lives: on the profit/loss sheets.

Boycott Hardware without Docs

Aaron Poffenberger's picture

If we really want to help promote the adoption of open source alternatives then we should be writing hardware manufacturers and convincing them to produce freely accessible hardware documentation. Using binary-only drivers (Blobs) hurts the community in two ways: 1) it convinces hardware manufacturers that "just working" matters more than free software, and 2) it only enables support on those platforms the manufacturer supports.

If the writing campaigns don't yield acceptable results, i.e., documentation that doesn't require an NDA and reasonable guarantees that patents fees won't be sought against developers of free drivers, then we should boycott those manufacturers.

Sure, pressuring Microsoft where possible is a good idea but let's not forget that a large part of the problem is unusable hardware. If we want truly open enterprises then we should be pushing for accessible hardware. Microsoft will get the message about patent trolling, open protocols and playing nice as their market share dwindles.

Aaron Poffenberger

Boycott Hardware without Docs

gaspero1's picture

I completely agree with you Aaron. Boycotting Microsoft won't encourage anyone to switch to Linux, or Mac, or anything else for that matter. The biggest thorn in the Penguin's side is indeed the same issue that's causing Vista so much trouble, and that's a lack of hardware support. I was painfully reminded of this over the weekend as I upgraded my older HP Pavilion desktop to Ubuntu 8.04. As much as I enjoy Ubuntu and other Linux distros, installing them and getting all of the kinks worked out can be annoying. Upon installation, I wound up with basic video support (800x600 resolution max), and no 802.11b/g support. Of course, I know how to fix these issues, but being that getting the wireless card to run requires the windows driver and a project out of sourceforge (I can't remember the name of it at the moment), the average user would become frustrated and give up on Ubuntu without really giving it a fair shake.

So, I think the answer is to continue to pull hardware vendors into the 21st century by convincing them to support all major platforms (Linux, Mac, and Windows), as they can profit from all three.

Windows is dying. Slowly, and painfully, on its own. Give it time. Microsoft has become it's own worst enemy. There's no need for stirring an already burnt pot.

Hardware is important

Glyn Moody's picture

I'm not arguing against boycotting hardware without documentation or proper GNU/Linux drivers. What I'm saying is that there's another, quite different, problem that has nothing to do with people switching to open source, but is all about Microsoft trying to blunt the latter's success. So getting better hardware support is great, but could be threatened if Microsoft succeeds in spattering software patents all over the open source world.


Winston Smith's picture

And I couldn't agree with you more, Glynn. The Beast of Redmond has no intent of playing nicely and every intent of poisoning everything outside its control. They've not changed one bit, and the OOXML fiasco clearly demonstrates that.

It's depressing how short-term some people's memories are.

Probably already happening...

Glyn Moody's picture

...but only on an ad hoc basis. Maybe we need some infrastructure to help more formal boycotts.

It's past time that

Alex Stone's picture

It's past time that opensource got not only the kudos it deserves, but acknowledgememt of the contribution by many talented people who have brought opensource to a stage of maturity that only poor marketing holds back in some circumstances. HW manufacturers have succumbed to the paranoia so gleefully encouraged by microsoft, by which they stand to lose everything, if they 'open up to opensource.' I'm a new linux user and fairly cynical when it comes to marketing promises, so getting the Ubuntu, Suse, Fedora feet wet was interesting for me. But so many users just want the, dare i say it, 'Windows' ease of use experience, as misleading as that is. I would hope that as many users as possible see through this deceit, and explore other options. I'm a full time composer, and as a now total linux user, the transition from the big evil, and the fruit market salesmen, was easier and easier the further i got into linux, and the many many options it gives.
So i'm with the article here, and run my little business win/mac free. In the 6 months since i started using linux, and gradually ridding myself of the other two, i've been asked many times why, and got a familiar chant, "Linux? That's for geeks." I know it's not true, but it's that perception that we as linux users, new and experienced, need to go after and change. I've just started using Suse 10.3 for my admin, and the install was much less painless than a big evil '2 minutes to go' type deceit.
It's down to HW in my opinion, and challenging the perception on the part of manufacturing CEOs that they're going to lose something if they start planning and producing opensource drivers and software, with support, as a significant and 'normal' part of their business perspective. If that happens, then we have a chance to change the perception of mainstream users away from microsoft's ruthless business practises, and towards a fairer and more open marketplace.
There's already a boycott at my place, and it will stay that way, as much for the better, more pleasant, computing experience i have, as a stand against what is a massive fraud, perpetuated by a company that has excelled in producing deficient software, indulging in questionable 'legal' safaris through the patent system, and ruthlessly suppressing any opposition, instead of pursuing excellence, all in the name of profit.

A boycott on a global scale gets my vote, and i would hope that devs across the opensource world join in, not only with the great code they continue to write, but pooling resources, and grabbing this new opportunity to cement an even firmer place in the minds, and computing habits, of 'Joe Average.' I'm not a coder at all, but you get my vote and support for your ongoing pursuit of excellence.

Sorry if this seems a bit strong, but i've had years of struggling with the 'other two', and any empathy or enthusiasm for the continual broken promises and marketing deceit have given way to a somewhat deep cynicism, given to blunt appraisalgiven to blunt appraisaldriving a blunt appraisal.


"Clearly it can't through

Bruno Miguel's picture

"Clearly it can't through refusing to buy its products"
Actually, it can. Not fully, but it can. More and more people are starting to use free software, particularly Firefox and GNU/Linux, so it's just a matter of time. Add to the mix the decline of the company, something that started a few years ago, and the fact that the consumers are starting to search quality instead of the same old crap with a different look, and Microsoft will be history in a recent future - and by recent I mean 10 years or so.

I meant...

Glyn Moody's picture

...those of us already in the open source world, who don't and wouldn't use Microsoft's products, can hardly boycott them again. But there are other ways of reacting, as I suggest above.

Actually, I'm more a Free

Bruno Miguel's picture

Actually, I'm more a Free Software user. :)

By not using Microsoft often really crappy products, I can still Boycott them. I can install Free Software in other people computers, I can talk about Free Software, I can teach how to use Free Software. So many things I can do to boycott Microsoft. :)

Oh, and I'm not a geek or a programmer - i can't write a single line of code (hello world doesn't count). I'm just an idealist who believes in freedom and a desktop user.

That's a crucial point

Anonymous's picture

Language is important. Using the term "free software" (or freedomware, whatever) is important. When you call it "open source" you are playing right into Microsoft's hand. They can play "open source" as just being a "development model" or a "business model," and you see them do it all of the time. When viewed that way, their talk about "building bridges" wrt patents sounds soooo reasonable! (Who could be against it?) But when you talk about "freedom," the problem with patents and patent agreements like the Novell agreement becomes clear. You can't have these "bridges" that MS wants to build and still retain freedom.

Yes, language is a crucial

Bruno Miguekl's picture

Yes, language is a crucial point. We need to use language to call things what they are.
If we don't use it correctly, we will be helping the proprietary software.

For example: Digital *Restrictions* Management

Sum Yung Gai's picture

One example is calling DRM for what it is: "Digital Restrictions Management." Another is always referring to Windows/MSOffice as "legacy" and Linux/OpenOffice as "modern".