March 7, 2001

Linux's threat to Microsoft: A whole new kind of war for Gates and crew

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -
To some observers, Microsoft's recent announcements that Linux and the GNU General Public licenses are a threat to its business and the American Way would seem to come at an odd time in the history of Linux.

Someone casually watching the Open Source community might note that just as Linux stocks hit all-time lows and Linux companies began laying off workers, Microsoft President and CEO Steve Ballmer called Linux his company's biggest threat. That was in January, and a month later, Microsoft's Windows operating-system chief, Jim Allchin, called Open Source a threat to innovation. Allchin later backtracked a little from the story, in which he implied that Open Source development was un-American, instead saying he was just talking only about the GNU General Public License.

Microsoft, never one to shy away from talking smack about perceived and real competitors, seems to have pumped up its Linux rhetoric when there's scant good news about the Linux market. Sure, IBM is pumping big money into Linux, and bad stock prices don't stop the thousands of Open Source developers from cranking out new code, but it would seem that Microsoft is kicking a dog when it's a bit down.

On Wednesday, self-described "Linux hobbyist" and programer Emily Dresner-Thornber posted an opinion piece on the site titled What Linux must do to survive. Read the whole thing before you fire off a flame; Dresner-Thornber makes some interesting points, some of which have even been made by Open Source advocates. I disagreed with a couple of her points, including that Microsoft doesn't see Linux as a real threat to its bottom line.

She writes in part: "Microsoft knows what I know: Linux is not a threat. It's an annoyance. It's a thorn. It is not, really, a threat. Not now. With enough marketing and cool, new developer toys, Microsoft can sway companies just like they did before with ASP, COM, InterDev and every other new initiative they have started in the last five years."

On several levels, Linux has some catching up to do before it seriously challenges Windows' market share. According to an IDC study released recently, Linux outpaced Windows in server sales growth in 2000, with Linux holding a 27 percent share of the server OS market and Microsof with 41 percent. But the study, with numbers some in the Open Source community might argue about, said Microsoft had 92 percent of the desktop/laptop market, with Linux only commanding 1 percent.

Certainly, the Linux server market should make Microsoft nervous, but that's not a new trend. Dresner-Thornber argues that Linux is nothing special as a target of Microsoft's FUD. She reminded me of Microsoft's campaigns against Apple and OS/2, used by the Redmond boys, she says, as no more than a way to drum up buzz about Microsoft products.

She's correct, to a point: Linux is among a long line of products that have found their way into Microsoft's crosshairs. But in each case, including Linux, Microsoft has seen the object of its anti-marketing campaign as some kind of threat. As a desktop and an enterprise OS, Linux may not be a huge threat to Microsoft's bottom line this very moment, but if the boys in Redmond are good at one thing, it's identifying potential competitors and crushing them like bugs. That's why the U.S. government considers Microsoft a monopoly.

Certainly, Linux's threat to Microsoft is not the same as Apple's or OS/2's were. Microsoft should be scared because Linux is playing by different rules. Think of Microsoft as a World War II military power that's used to fighting a ground war against other armies with fewer tanks and fewer guns. The powerful Microsoft has been able to sell its brand of spin because it's had the biggest and loudest guns.

But the Linux community isn't playing that game. At the risk of getting the community compared to communists once again, the Linux people are fighting a guerilla war.

What happens when Linux companies' stock drops? Linus Torvalds and crew pay no attention; instead they release the 2.4 kernel. What happens when Linux companies lay off staff? IBM announces it's investing $1 billion in Linux.

Unlike Apple and the other objects of Microsoft's FUD, the Linux developer community doesn't have to worry about making a payroll or pleasing stockholders. Linux companies have to worry about those things, but the companies aren't driving Linux development, the community is.

Microsoft is slowly realizing it can't kill Linux. Even if Linux stock prices never recover, the community will survive mostly unchanged. Microsoft's spin campaign has never worked on the Linux crowd, and the rest of the world is starting to realize what Microsoft has been feeding it for years.

The huge, ancient monolith that is Microsoft doesn't know how to fight this war, and that scares the hell out of Gates and Ballmer. Unlike Apple or OS/2, Linux has snuck up on Microsoft, and the company has no idea how to compete.

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