Ballmer Blames Software Piracy on Spendy Hardware, or: What I'd Do with a Hundred Bucks

by Chris DiBona

Before you continue with this article, first go read Mike Ricciuti's article about a recent appearance by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Once you've put your head back together after that nasty explosion, let's talk here about some things that Steve said.

First off, let's take a look at the things about which he is absolutely correct. Ballmer says, "Until government and situational factors reduce piracy... those people...don't pay". It may sound petulant to point out this fact, but I've been saying this same thing forever. Linux doesn't win due to cost in terms of cash money marvelous, as Windows is pirated everywhere. If we are to believe the BSA, one in four businesses pirate software. How does one then explain the popularity of Linux- and BSD-based distributions? It couldn't be because they're better, could it?

Maybe Ballmer's other quote from the same article can shed some light on the answer to that question, "The biggest problem we have right now is that people who should be paying for software aren't." I'd like to refactor that statement. What I think he meant to say was, "The biggest problem is that we have people not paying for software that they seem to really like."

I hail Microsoft's desire for a $100 computer, I really do. You can buy a lot of computer nowadays for a crisp hundred dollar bill. Let's go to eBay.... Ah, here's a solid little machine--an IBM Netvista 500MHz machine with 128MB of RAM and a 10GB hard drive. Maybe you want a little more? How about a Fujitsu 700MHz with 192MB of RAM?. System discounters in any good-size town have machines such as these waiting for a nice home. You can run a solid Linux desktop on either of these machines and be very happy.

Would the same be true of Windows? Maybe. You'd need a little more RAM, but if you're willing to put up with some thrashing, it should do. But wait, that XP license is non-transferable from user to user. So if you want to be legal, you need to get a copy of XP Home (OEM), which Froogle is showing at or around $100. So, you're up to $200 now. I could have another Linux machine for that!

The point I'm trying to make here is there is real value in machines that have been abandoned for being somehow inferior, and the best tool I know of for deriving value from "experienced" hardware is Linux. I'm currently running a variety of servers for my personal infrastructure. I have two 1U machines with 933MHz PIII processors, both with decent amounts of drive on them and 384MB of memory each. My big upgrade for them might be memory, but they're both running well as is. They're not doing much, mind you. They're simply doing file and print work on my home network and some Web serving, but they have been doing that steadily now for some four years or more--I can't remember when I bought them from CDC. I reloaded them both about two years ago with Fedora core and I keep them updated, but that's about it. Rock steady.

Before they use Linux, people often have the idea that computers are ambiguous, capricious or even malignant machines out to get them. Install Linux, however, and you get the same computer from day to day, which is why I like using it.

Chris DiBona is the Open Source Program Manager for Mountain View, California, based Google, Inc. These writings are the author's opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer. Before joining Google, Chris was an editor/author for the popular on-line Web site, and he is an internationally known advocate of open-source software and related methodologies. He co-edited the award winning essay compilation Open Sources and can be reached by way of his Web site.

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