Should We Trash Windows Vista – or BadVista?

by Glyn Moody

The world and their dog seems to be talking about Windows 7 at the moment. Ironically, in part that's because it's proving almost impossible to download the beta that has just been released: you can't help feeling that Microsoft has let this happen on purpose just to create a little demand. But while everyone is looking forward, I want to look back, at Windows Vista – more specifically, to the FSF's BadVista campaign.

As the site explains:

On December 15, 2006, the FSF launched its campaign to advocate for the freedom of computer users, opposing adoption of Microsoft Windows Vista and promoting free -- as in freedom -- software alternatives.

Two years later, BadVista is shutting up shop – for the best possible reason:

the campaign has nearly 7,000 registered supporters, the name Vista is synonymous in the public eye with failure, and we are declaring victory.

Something to rejoice about, you might think. But not everyone agrees. Over on Twitter (where you can follow me at @glynmoody if you're so inclined), there were some interesting comments to the effect that BadVista's declaration of victory was in poor taste and rather childish, and that it would actually damage the free software movement by giving an impression of pettiness.

Given the fact that Windows Vista is, without doubt, one of Microsoft's most high-profile damp squibs – remember, this is the central product for the whole company, heir to Windows 95 and Windows XP – I think it is important to evaluate in what way BadVista may have contributed to the debate. If it's a useful approach, then it might be applied elsewhere; if not, then it's important not to repeat its mistakes.

The BadVista site makes some claims about what the campaign has done:

First, we successfully provided an entry point for those interested in Vista to learn about free software alternatives. Prospective Vista users searching for "windows vista" on all popular search engines saw and still see on the first page of results.

The latter is an objective fact, so we can certainly concede that point. The first is also probably true, though it's harder to gauge how much impact that “entry point” has had on the general public.

But I'm not so sure about the next section:

Microsoft's attempt to create pressure on users to change from prior versions of Windows to Vista created an opportunity for us to suggest that if users were going to take the trouble to change their operating system -- something inertia often works against -- then they should switch to GNU/Linux instead. In this way, we were successful in transforming Microsoft's unprecedented marketing blitz into a moment introducing many new people to free software.

I frankly doubt that many people were introduced to new software through the magic combination of Microsoft's actions and this site. Moving from Windows XP to GNU/Linux is a big step, and most people have clearly preferred to stick with XP for the moment (which is why Microsoft had to extend the cut-off date for its availability several times.) Any increased market share for GNU/Linux is more likely down to the success of the ultraportable/netbook form-factor, which was created using free software, and still uses GNU/Linux to offer the lowest-price models.

The BadVista site goes on:

we helped expose the restrictions Vista imposes on its users. Our Vista Watch section collected over 250 news stories describing Vista's new Digital Restrictions Management system as well as security holes and other problems with Vista that stemmed from its being proprietary software. In addition to aggregating such stories, we served as an information resource for reporters writing about Vista, giving straight answers about its restrictions that they couldn't get from Microsoft.

This is an important point. One of the striking things about Microsoft Vista is how widespread across the media the view is that it has failed. Aggregating stories about its shortcomings and lack of uptake creates a kind of informational momentum that is hard to resist. It's also true that once reporters start to smell blood, they will look for (a) factual corroboration and (b) contrasting comments. BadVista has usefully provided both, feeding the growing body of evidence back into the journalistic machine to fuel further reporting – a classic positive feedback loop.

As to the accusation of Schadenfreude, FSF activists can perhaps be forgiven a little triumphalism. Not so much because victories are rare in this sphere – they are becoming commoner by the day; rather it's a matter of giving Microsoft a taste of its own unpleasant marketing medicine. It has consistently been arrogant and dismissive towards free software, and being able to rub its face in the failure of Vista must be sweet for those who have worked hard to help make that happen.

That said, I think it would have been better to have forgone this easy pleasure. Had the FSF post avoided facile declarations of “victory”, or vague claims about introducing people to GNU/Linux through this campaign, and concentrated instead on the very real achievements – in the media sphere, for example - people would probably have been even more impressed. Better to emphasise the superiority of free software and its supporters by rising above Microsoft and its tactics.

Against that background, and with the appearance of Vista's successor, now would be a useful time to ponder how such campaigns should be waged in the future. Is this focus on negativity a useful way to go about things? If so, should the FSF be preparing a BadOffice site, or BadWindows 7 site, or are their better targets? If not, might it be more effective to adopt a more subtle approach, creating targeted resources for journalists so that they can present the other side? Any views?

Glyn Moody writes about free software at opendotdotdot.

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