May 4, 2001

Herding cats to counter Microsoft's assaults

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -

As a Microsoft executive slammed Open Source business models Thursday, the PR folks at IBM were busy announcing that a major Venezuelan bank has dumped Windows NT to run its "mission-critical" applications on Linux on an IBM mainframe.

In a day that Microsoft was hoping for good spin while senior v.p. Craig Mundie announced a "shared source" initiative, there was a lot of good news for the Open Source and Free Software communities.

Thousands upon thousands of words have been and will be written about Mundie's speech, including a well-reasoned preemptive strike from Eric S. Raymond, probably the community's most persistent advocate.

Raymond made the point, as others will, that Microsoft seems to be moving toward Open Source with its "shared source" initiative, despite Mundie's denials. Wrote Raymond, with amazing fortune-telling skills: "After Craig Mundie gets through trying to make you fear and distrust open source, he will tout Microsoft's new so-called openness. He will doubtless talk about how Microsoft is willing to share source code with large customers and universities ... What Mr. Mundie will hope you don't notice is that Microsoft wants all the 'sharing' to be in one direction. What they're doing is what we call 'source under glass' -- you can see it, but you can't modify or
reuse it in other programs."

Raymond predicted this attempted "co-opting" of Open Source, an effort by Microsoft to look like it's opening up its code to address the needs of customers. But there's also good news for the Open Source community in Microsoft's actions: If the world's biggest defender of proprietary, closed-source development looks like it's embracing Open Source in a small way, Microsoft might inadvertently pave the way for Open Source companies to sell the real deal to companies who've resisted the revolution.

Another piece of good news is that nobody seems to be buying Microsoft's watered-down, weak effort to open its code. Media sources as diverse as and the New York Times noted Mundie's speech was little more than an assault on Free Software and Open Source. The hundreds of Microsoft spin-meisters weren't able to work their magic. noted the irony: "Redmond lets its customers look at source code but doesn't let them tinker with it. In fact, the company says free code is potentially criminal."

Don't the boys from Redmond know how silly they sound? After spreading lies about Open Source software for years, Microsoft is becoming the boy who cries wolf.

A final piece of good news was IBM's announcement: That Banco Mercantil, a bank with 375 branches in Venezuela and nearly a dozen others in the United States, dumped a group of NT boxes for an IBM S/390 G6 running SuSE Linux. According to a press release, applications currently running on Sun and HP servers will later be moved to the new Linux platform. The bank is using Linux mainframe Web applications to enable customers to check their bank accounts on the Internet.

It's not the first press release IBM has issued on customers adopting Linux, and it won't be the last. What's notable is that IBM says Banco Mercantil is the first Latin American company, and among the first in the conservative, security-sensitive banking industry, to adopt Linux in the enterprise.

In his speech, Microsoft's Mundie raised doubts about the Open Source business model, but even that criticism was weak and sad. Mundie seemed to say that Open Source doesn't work when you're trying to sell software, but he couldn't bring himself to question other kinds of Open Source business models.

" ... Open source software based on the GPL mirrors the dot-com business models that proved the least successful during the past year," he said. "They ask software developers to give away for free the very thing they create that is of greatest value in the hope that somehow they'll make money selling something else ... The business model for OSS may well be attractive for software as an adjunct to hardware -- the model of the '60s and '70s -- or for service businesses that do not generate the revenue needed for major investments in technology. But as history has shown, while this type of model may have a place, it isn't successful in building a mass market and making powerful, easy-to-use software broadly accessible to consumers."

There are plenty of Linux advocates who'd argue that the Open Source model can result in "powerful, easy-to-use software," and IBM's Thursday announcement is further evidence that the hardware and service models Mundie dismissed lightly have potential. The good news is that IBM and others are proving Open Source can be the basis for a business model.

But there's also some reason for introspection within the Open Source community from the news of the last couple of days. Of course, there's some danger that Microsoft's latest declaration of war on the GPL and Open Source business models will find an audience somewhere.

Microsoft's constant attacks can't help its credibility in many eyes, but a majority of computer users still use its products. Someone is still buying the company line, and there's some danger that Microsoft's recent coordinated attacks could hurt the Open Source community.

The community seems to possess little desire to band together to fight back. Granted, Raymond's preview of the speech, after he was tipped off by a friendly journalist, was extremely effective; he and other community leaders have often stepped up and articulately countered attacks from Microsoft. Raymond, in particular, has been tireless in his efforts to promote Open Source to the outside community.

But as a whole, the Open Source community's response to such assaults has largely been a bunch of freelancers posting on community sites saying essentially the same thing, "Those bastards are spreading FUD again." There's nothing wrong with such discussions, but that's all that would've happened this time had Raymond not gone public with his preemptive strike.

IBM's PR efforts even lacked coordination this week. Two different PR people emailed NewsForge to offer sources on the Banco Mercantil deal and Mundie's speech. One interview was canceled and another talking head found, then a third PR person called to say IBM would not be commenting on the Microsoft speech. Finally, the replacement interview was canceled.

Earlier this week, NewsForge reported on Red Hat's efforts to make changes in Maryland's Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act. Red Hat's collective heart is in the right place, but Mark Webbink, the company's senior vice president and general counsel, admitted that there's no coordinated Open Source effort to lobby state and federal governments on issues important to the community. Why should Red Hat feel obligated to carry that torch?

Now, herding a pack of cats is probably easier than getting a bunch of Open Source people together to lobby lawmakers or present a united front against more Microsoft mis-truths. But we're still navigating unfriendly waters -- one doesn't have to look far to find people of power who don't understand issues important to the community.

The U.S. Congress and court system, the mainstream media, and the computer-buying public need an education that can only come from a group effort.


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