Of Microsoft, GNU/Linux and Boiled Asses' Heads

by Glyn Moody

There are many ways of peering into the future. This page lists 163 of them, including cephalonomancy (divination by boiling an ass head), coscinomancy, (divination using a sieve and a pair of shears), ololygmancy (fortune-telling by the howling of dogs) and tiromancy (divination using cheese). Me, I prefer to stick with the tried-and-trusted method of reading between the lines of Microsoft press releases.

Like this one:

Today Microsoft announced the worldwide extension of the availability of Windows XP Home for an emerging, new class of mobile personal computers commonly known as ultra-low-cost PCs, or ULCPCs. Windows XP Home for ULCPCs will be available until the later of June 30, 2010, or one year after general availability of the next version of Windows.

This U-turn on the availability of Windows XP – at least for the Home version - originally scheduled to be withdrawn on June 30th this year, was inevitable the moment the Asus Eee PC turned into an overnight sensation. As I've discussed elsewhere, the idea of putting Windows Vista on an Eee PC is so ridiculous it's not even funny. Windows XP was the only option if Microsoft wanted to avoid handing the entire ultramobile sector to GNU/Linux. But let's look a little more closely at what Microsoft has to say on the subject:

Microsoft has heard from partners and customers that they want Windows broadly available for this new class of devices, because they want the familiarity, compatibility and support only available on the Windows platform. Extending the availability of Windows XP Home for this category reflects Microsoft’s ongoing commitment to deliver the right version of Windows for new device categories as they emerge.

Well, no, not really. Microsoft customers have been begging for all varieties of Windows XP to be available for every device, not just the Home version for ultraportables. Far from any “ongoing commitment to deliver the right version of Windows for new device categories as they emerge”, Microsoft has been desperately trying to stuff Vista onto any machine that has processor – including systems that are woefully underpowered for its inordinate resource demands. Windows XP Home is not “the right version of Windows”, it is simply the only one that was at all plausible.

PressPass: Why are customers asking for Windows on these devices?
Dix: Three benefits are driving this interest in Windows. First, the Windows experience makes it easy for existing PC customers to use these new devices, and it makes these devices easy to learn for customers new to computing. Second, only Windows provides customers access to the widest range of applications, devices and online experiences. Finally, our partners already know how to build and support great systems powered by the Windows platform.

One of the surprising things about the Asus Eee PC is that everybody finds it almost trivially easy to use. Indeed, single-handedly it gives the lie to the idea that GNU/Linux is only for geeks. So it's understandable that Microsoft should want to hammer home the idea that only a Windows-based ultraportable could be easy to use. In fact, the opposite is true: the interface of the Eee PC, with its Firefox-like tabs and big, easy-to-understand icons, is so simple that it makes Windows XP look incredibly complicated when placed side by side. This whole line of reasoning reveals one of Microsoft's greatest fears for the future: that general users might one day realise they don't need the crutch of the Windows interface.

The comment about “access to the widest range of applications, devices and online experiences” is echoed a little later in the press release with the following:

From the feedback we’ve seen, customers want ULCPCs that are easy to use, familiar and fully compatible with popular Web sites, applications and devices.

Now, that's an interesting point: “fully compatible with popular Web sites”. Any Web site that follows open standards will be viewable by any standards-compliant browser. Microsoft's comment only makes sense in the context of non-standard Web content that is tied to Internet Explorer. Another looming concern of Microsoft, then, is that people might start demanding that sites follow Web standards and thus further decouple the Web server platform from the Web browser.

But it is the following passage that goes to the heart of Microsoft's concerns about the way things might develop:

we also believe people will want to scale up over time to machines with greater functionality and higher performance. With the benefit of a Windows experience on ULCPCs, it’s a natural transition to more powerful PCs running the Windows they already know.

Microsoft simply cannot afford to let people avoid that “natural transition”. Once people start using GNU/Linux on systems like the Eee PC, and find it almost trivially easy to use programs like Firefox and OpenOffice.org, they are going to wonder why they should pay the Microsoft tax when they buy a notebook or desktop. Microsoft can't let that knowledge get out into the general user market, which means that it must offer a Windows product here to plug the gap in the barbed wire that guards the perimeter.

That's clearly good for the company, but may not be so obviously good for the end user or even manufacturers of these systems. If you want to get an idea of which way the wind is blowing as far as the latter are concerned, try this report from the Intel Developer Forum in Shanghai last week – and remember, Intel is one of Microsoft's closest buddies:

Anand Chandrasekher, Intel senior vice president and general manager of the Ultra Mobility Group, said in his IDF keynote: "As always, we partner with Microsoft." Then he proceeded to not mention Microsoft again--and mentioned Linux a lot. "We announced an initiative last year. A Linux-based initiative. In order to get the form factor down, to get the cost down, and to even get lower power levels beyond what was achievable. We have an entire ecosystem behind it. Ubuntu and Red Flag. The initiative is called Moblin," Chandrasekher said.

Aptly enough, the Moblin Web site is entitled: "mobile and internet linux project." That's pretty self-descriptive.

Despite Microsoft's characteristically upbeat spin on the latest decision, its volte-face on Windows XP shows that it has been caught wrong-footed with the rise of the ultraportables. All it can do is offer old solutions for this exciting new market, and hope against hope that the future Windows 7, probably a modular system – after all, Microsoft already has a patent on the idea - much more akin to the highly-flexible GNU/Linux, has a small enough core and turns up at least vaguely on schedule.

If it hasn't and doesn't, you won't need asses' heads, sieves and shears, howling dogs or cheese to predict that a lot of chairs are going to be thrown.

Glyn Moody writes about open source at opendotdotdot.

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