Why Folks Do What They Do

Monday, April 05 2004 @ 06:55 AM EDT

Contributed by: PJ

There is a sad tale being told on The Register by Andrew Orlowski about why Sun settled with Microsoft -- they needed the money, he says:

"Principles are fine things to have, but only if you can afford them. With its stock declared a 'junk bond' and finishing a terrible quarter, Silicon Valley's leading Microsoft antagonist Sun Microsystems has now decided it can't."

It's too sorry a tale to tell you more. You can go read all the details for yourself. There's an article about Sun VP Rich Green, leaving "in disgust". And Investor's Business Daily has a different take on the pact:

"Both, however, agree that having unique intellectual property is key to standing out in a sea of commodity systems. While neither mentioned Linux — Sun itself sells Linux systems — the comments seemed to target such open-source software.

"'I don't interpret that as a direct cut against Linux,' said Al Gillen, an analyst with International Data Corp. 'But the fact that they were using the term "intellectual property" so liberally seems to suggest that Microsoft and Sun believe they need to focus on the intellectual property they have and how they can leverage that.'. . . "'Does this open the door for Microsoft software to run on Linux or Solaris?' Murphy said. It opens the door for future conversations.'"

But the reason I mention Orlowski's article is because it made me realize why GNU/Linux software is Microsoft's unbeatable foe. FOSS wasn't written with money as its object, and it can't go out of "business". Microsoft has nothing that the creators of FOSS want. They don't even want their code, let alone their money. I think it can safely be said that if either Richard Stallman or Linus Torvalds could be bribed into compromising, it would have happened already. They aren't in this for the money. So we'll never read a headline, "Linus sells his soul to the Devil."

Well. Maybe on ibiblio. On April 1st.

Principles aren't "a fine thing to have". They are indispensible, what make humans precious. I was thinking about that even before I read Orlowski's piece, that the two sides in this debate, proprietary and FOSS, are separated by principles. One side says money is a god worthy of worship, worth doing anything for and useful for all things. The other says that some things are priceless, just can't be bought and paid for, and that it diminishes humans when they live selfish lives at the expense of others. There is a price, a toll on the heart, when you love money enough to hurt others, because it's a repudiation of what makes humans more than dogs or pigs. Selling out your principles for anything, let alone money, is pitiable. Being willing to harm your fellow man for a buck is evil.

Microsoft sells anti-your-neighbor software. You can't run anybody else's software applications on it unless it lets you, and it doesn't want to let you, and it has even stooped to hobbling competitors' applications so they wouldn't run well on Windows. Can you imagine needing a court to force you to let people choose the software that they want to use? What kind of a business is that? That's just not neighborly. You can't even readily interoperate new versions of Word with older ones, let alone interoperate well with other companies' software.

The MS EULA alone chills the blood. And the license is so lopsidedly for the benefit of Microsoft only, a customer could tip over reading it. If you try to do anything the least bit out-of-the-box with that software, like look at the code, you risk being sued. It's software that mistrusts you and that insists on controlling you. Sound like anyone you know?

SCO's software is a weapon, a torpedo. It doesn't care who or what it damages, and in fact it wants to do damage, to hit its targets and get some money, honey. They obviously realize that nobody much wants UNIX any more, so they are bullying the world to try to force people to use their software or pay them to continue to use software they do like, which they claim has software snips, or lines of code or ideas or methods, or whatever it is this week, allegedly hidden somewhere in it that nobody can find or verify. Or else it's bombs away. Is that nice? They made the world an offer they hoped it couldn't refuse. What kind of business is that? Not a neighborly one, anyway.

Obviously, SCO has no sense of neighbor or human autonomy or freedom or even something as basic as a free market economy. They want money and they want it now. But it underestimated the reaction on the FOSS side and even from the business world. It really thought everyone would sell out just to be left alone, that decisions would be made based solely on the bottom line, and short-term bottom line at that. It's a human weakness to imagine others think the way you do.

GNU/Linux, in contrast, is a gift to the world. Here, it says, need some nice software? Help yourself. Just help the next guy, will you, so we can build up a nice pile of great software we can all enjoy? And if you want the software in a more convenient form, we can sell you some and you can hire us to take care of any problems you may run into, if you want to. You can donate too, to make sure this kind of software gets written. Or you can hire someone to write software precisely matching your needs. Your own monogrammed version. Impractical? Unrealistic? You could say that twenty years ago, maybe even ten. Nobody writes software for free, Gates once opined. But they did write it. They still do.

And now Microsoft's empire is in danger of crumbling, because for the first time, some folks made some competing software they can't buy off. It can't buy the folks who made it, either, because they value some things more than money. But, you may say, maybe the businesses jumping on the Linux bandstand will sell out? They might, some of them. But FOSS doesn't much care. It has a life of its own, and its life just doesn't depend on what businesses do.

Another reason Microsoft's empire is crumbling is security issues, speaking of software that is anti-consumer. People are fed up, according to Dr. Simon Moores of Zentelligence, in his Computer Weekly column. He read Microsoft's latest promise to deliver more secure software, but he's unconvinced:

"Bill Gates writes bravely of the future and downstream Microsoft technologies which demand 'fundamentally new thinking about software quality, continuous improvement in tools and processes'. ....However, the basics need to be sorted out before we start star-gazing into the future. . . .

"Unless Microsoft quickly and creatively sorts out the runaway consumer and small and medium-sized enterprises security problem, it runs the risk of a catastrophic loss of public confidence when the next big virus or worm comes along.

"Government and big business are fed-up. What we need is immediate solutions to today’s problems and we’ll worry about Microsoft’s next generation of products at a later date."

I wonder if Dr. Moores has tried GNU/Linux? If he wants security, I don't think he needs to wait for Microsoft to be hit by lightning. Nor does the goverment have to step in to do something about security. Just switch to GNU/Linux software and you'll improve your security overnight. The solution already fell in your lap. And it's free.

Top officials from Korea, Japan and China just signed an agreement Saturday to work together to develop a common GNU/Linux platform. Korea's representative explained why:

"'With a Linux-based operating system, it is relatively easier to prepare security measures against computer virus attacks because of open source codes' . . . . According to the agreement, the three nations will promote the use of Linux-based software they develop; research Linux-based software for cell phones; and establish an open-source software forum for the Northeast Asian region. The three countries came to the conclusion that open-source operating systems are more effective in protecting computer systems from hackers and developing the software industry, the Yomiuri Shimbun, a Japanese daily, said."

Here are some other reasons people are switching ("Linux is, inarguably, the quintessential better mousetrap."). Interestingly, Orlowski writes that Microsoft's biggest competitors are Nokia and Sony, "two companies whose core revenues don't derive from Windows and who can set global standards." (Speaking of standards, you might want to read David Berlind's latest on the Liberty Alliance.) If entire countries, including China, go GNU/Linux, and they just did, Microsoft will have to change its ways, unless it plans on taking over Japan and Korea and China and the whole world by force. Not even Microsoft has enough money and power to do that, judging by Saturday's agreement. So, here's a suggestion, guys. Why don't you try to figure out why everyone is running away from the software you are trying to sell them? Determine what customers want and provide it. You can only control a market with force for so long before humans rebel, if what you provide doesn't satisfy. It's kind of built in to us to gravitate to friendly, pleasant, neighborly folks, and that goes for companies too.

What SCO does not comprehend apparently is that GNU/Linux is beating UNIX precisely because it is open and because everyone can build on everyone else's ideas. It's the same reason why Picasso and Matisse used to get together and paint in the same room sometimes, despite being rivals, to feed off each other's creative ideas. They'd both paint the same still life and talk about painting, to rejuvenate each other and be more productive. Creativity needs to feed on others. It's how it works best. The GPL guarantees it can happen. Innovation in software thrives, it turns out, in expansive, low-barrier-to-entry environments where talent is free to be expressed and ideas can build freely on other ideas. Neighborliness turns out to be the more practical choice.