Are Linux and Open Source Un-American?

by Steve Coe

Jim Allchin, Microsoft Windows operating system chief, was quoted in an article about open source last week. I advise any Linux user to go and read it if you haven't already, as it's great comedy material.

According to the hive mind of Microsoft, open source should be made illegal. There's no way around it, this is the bottom line. Want to write your own code and release it into the community? Congratulations, come with us Sir/Madam, we have this nice little grey room for you. Don't worry about the bars on the windows, they are there for our protection in case you somehow manage to write a graphics viewer or a Perl script to terrorize the world.

Ordinarily, a mere underling like Mr. Allchin wouldn't be taken too seriously, but Microsoft speaks with one voice, and we all know who he is channeling.

As a member of the Linux and Open Source communities, I am appalled and outraged by his comments and wish to respond. The article shows Microsoft is scared. Very scared. So, will they build a better product? Nah, to hell with it, they'll just get the government to outlaw the competition.

Firstly, Mr. Allchin claims that open source could stifle innovation and legislators need to understand this threat. What threat would that be exactly Mr. Allchin? How does open source stifle innovation? I invite Mister Allchin to go and examine and get back to me. I have found programs for Linux that have no comparable counterpart in Windows. Conversely, I haven't found anything Windows can do that Linux can't. What Mr. Allchin actually means is that freely available software code stifles Microsoft's bottom line, which is a threat to Microsoft's stockholders.

Linux itself is an innovation: an operating system, coded out of love for the system by thousands of people, freely available to download. Bugs are squashed quickly. If you are a coder, you can fix a bug yourself and submit the patch. If you don't like the way something is done, you can write it your own way. Want a particular application only you seem to need? Write it yourself, then make it freely available so those who can't program can benefit from it.

Under the Microsoft way, bugs are rarely if ever fixed. If you find one, tough luck. You have to live with it. Need a certain application? You will either have to invest in Microsoft tools to write it, or hunt around in an attempt to find a free alternative that will do the job well.

In truth, open source is good for consumers. It promotes choice--which is why Microsoft wants it made illegal.

Allchin also attempts to link Napster with Linux, however tenuously. No more calls, we have a winner. You invoked the current technological boogeyman. Allchin states Microsoft has to do a better job of talking to policy makers. No doubt, this is some strange usage of the word "talking" which involves large "donations" changing hands...

"Open source is an intellectual-property destroyer" is the dramatic claim from Allchin, as though Microsoft is all that stands between us and anarchy. "I can't imagine something that could be worse than this for the software business and the intellectual-property business." I can. It would be worse if Microsoft is allowed to continue their monopolistic and destructive business practices, particularly if they are, effectively, given a government mandate to do so. I seriously doubt any other software company has fallen for this statement. Microsoft seem to be implying they care about the software business as a whole, which they don't. If they cared about the business as a whole, they wouldn't crush competition. If they gave a damn about the consumer, they would advocate choice, not attempt to destroy it.

The magic word in Allchin's previous statement is "business". Intellectual property should NOT be a business. Intellectual property is a means to protect your ideas, NOT a way to make money. I would like Mr. Allchin to explain, in detail, exactly how open source is bad for intellectual property.

As for the software business, it is entirely possible for businesses to make money from open-source software. It is also possible for paid software to peacefully co-exist with free software. Despite what Microsoft would like the average person to think, Linux and it's open source friends don't necessarily want to see the end of commercial software. Open source and Linux are alternatives. While Microsoft seems to be determined to have everyone do things their way, open source and Linux are saying that there is more than one way to do things. Again, open source is about choice.

The traditional business software model is evolving, and Microsoft, being the lumbering behemoth it is, is worried about not being able to keep up with the world. Microsoft fears obsolescence, but it is too late. They are already obsolete. Their software is not required to run your computer anymore.

As for the predicted demise of intellectual property rights, that's no bad thing in my books. The company which manufactures everything I need for one of my hobbies aggressively goes after web sites that infringe on its intellectual property, despite the fact that they stole almost every idea they use from elsewhere. It appears that when an individual "steals" something, it's called theft. When a large group of people do it, it's called business.

Finally, the last gung-ho statement from Mr. Allchin. "I'm an American, I believe in the American Way." Wow! Three for three, Jim. You invoked the boogeyman of Napster, position yourself as the brave defender of the consumer against the evils of open source and then complete the unholy trinity with patriotism.

Given Microsoft's behaviour, the American way is monopolistic business practices, crushing competitors and looking out for nothing but your own interests and the bottom line. What a truly magnificent country Microsoft envisages. What a Brave New World. I may not be American, but I always thought the American Way was that anyone could be anything they wanted to be, and it was a land where freedom was a birth right. I guess I missed a meeting somewhere.

"I worry if the government encourages open source, and I don't think we've done enough education of policy makers to understand the threat." All this talk of threats, but nothing really solid to back them up. Veiled references, insinuation, but nothing of substance. What do you propose we do to educate them? I'm sure innumerable open-source authors would be more than willing to educate the policy makers as to the benefits; after all, I'm sure Microsoft want all sides to have a fair hearing.

I'll try and help Microsoft here by pointing out all the evil things the Open Source community have done like.... Nope, drawing a blank. This statement comes from a company which leaves known holes in their software, allows the propagation of viruses that shutdown e-mail servers, and does nothing about it until the public at large finds out. They then release service patches that make things worse than they were before and criticize people for making the holes in their software known to the public, despite the fact that said holes can cause major security issues.

Open source software allows the user to examine the code. See what is driving their system. What is Microsoft afraid of? That we may see what's buried in their code? Or see how truly awful it is? Rather than evolve, Microsoft have chosen to attempt to buy legislation. Microsoft wants software closed because open source is a threat to their dominance.

Aside from Mr. Allchin's woefully misguided remarks, the article itself is filled with inaccurate statements. Take this gem, for example: "Linux is the fastest-growing operating system program for running server computers, according to research firm IDC." To that I say a resounding "Huh?" "Operating system program"? Either the writer of this article is quite clever, making Linux appear to be nothing more than a simple program, or is completely in the dark as to what Linux really is.

"It [Linux] accounted for 27 percent of unit shipments of server operating systems in 2000. Microsoft's Windows was the most popular on that basis, with 41 percent." Reading this article I get the distinct impression it was written by someone who ordinarily covers college basketball and somehow landed this plum assignment of quoting the latest inane yammerings from Redmond on a slow news day. The wording, whether intentional or accidental, is misleading. Both Windows and Linux are operating systems. Other software has to be run to use them as servers.

This statement and the previous comment imply that Linux is nothing more than a "server operating system". That is, Linux is used entirely for servers and has no other use. After all, there aren't tens of thousands of people using it as a viable alternative to Windows, doing all their daily computer-related tasks without looking at anything with the name Microsoft on it. "Fair comment", he said, looking at his Linux desktop, writing in a Linux text editor, while looking at the original article in Linux Netscape.

Finally, Mr. Allchin leaves the most telling remark until last. "We can build a better product than Linux", he said. "There is always something enamoring about thinking you can get something for free." Yes, Jim, there is, particularly when the free product is, by his own admission, better than the one you have to pay for. "We CAN build a better product." For that, read "We can, but rather than do that, we'd rather turn all those working on Linux into criminals as we continue to churn out the same unstable, unreliable software we always produce." As for "thinking you can get something for free", he leaves the realm of sanity and disappears into his own happy land filled. I have been running Linux for two years now and, in that time, have spent $0 on it. Linux IS free, and will always be free. Free to download, free to use and free to duplicate. Nothing Microsoft can do will stop that, and really, this is why statements like these are being made.

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