Microsoft 'enemies' make for strange bedfellows

Microsoft 'enemies' make for strange bedfellows

Summary: Collaborations come and go. Open Document Format is but the latest round in the battle for competitive advantage.

TOPICS: Open Source

I am continually reminded of that old maxim "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" -- in IT this old saying takes many forms and leaves us with many strange bedfellows.

David Berlind's recent article, IBM's potential MS-Office killer to roll out by year's end, reminds me of how everyone's favorite "bad guy" (Microsoft) brings together such strange bedfellows as IBM and Sun Microsystems.

Of course, on the ODF (Open Document Format) front, there are many Microsoft "enemies" -- from the Linux 'free software' zealots (sorry guys) to government (the City of Munich, the State of Massachusetts) and finally to the fiercest of competitors, such as IBM. Each has a different motive but all want the same thing -- the ability to interact with data prepared with Microsoft tools without having to use Microsoft tools.

In the end, "open standards" are just another way of saying "lowest common denominator." For government, "standards" means not having to repeatedly convert old data from format to format to keep it accessible to the public. For the end-user, it means cheap but functional software - usually without many bells and whistles. Open standards mean commodity pricing for the consumer and little, if any, competitive advantage for the vendor. Open standards allow the competition to encroach upon monopolized markets (such as those monopolized by Microsoft today) but once competitors break into those markets, they start to deviate from those very open standards in order to gain competitive advantage. ODF is only the latest round in the battle for competitive advantage.

For IBM's part in its current collaboration with Sun, its interest is in introducing, as David puts it, "an MS-Office killer" -- in part to "poke Bill gates in the eye" but also to demonstrate that it can build a better mousetrap. One which has all of the collaborative strengths of Office but with a scalability and portability second to none. Sun, for its part, is interested in this collaboration because IBM has put its eggs on the Java basket -- and with good reason. Java is quickly becoming the standard platform for many portable applications from cell phones to PDAs and now, thanks to IBM, to "big iron."

But it really depends a lot on the topic at hand as to who is who's "enemy"...

For instance, above we are talking about IBM & Sun against Microsoft. If we are talking about bringing down Linux, Microsoft is aligned with Sun -- and both are hoping against hope that SCO will prevail against Linux licensees. (And neither one would mind too terribly much if IBM got a black eye for SCO's efforts in court.) Unlike IBM (and perhaps Novell), neither Sun nor Microsoft are threatened by SCO's antics, so they are free to collaborate against RedHat and its brethren in the Linux VAR business.

In the UNIX server world, IBM, HP, and Sun are fierce competitors who find themselves nervously standing together -- selling Linux "on the side" in order to keep RedHat, SuSe, Debian, et al, at bay. (And, along with Novell, wishing that SCO would just dry-up and blow away. After all, without SCO breathing down their necks, they become free to blend the best of Linux and the best of UNIX into whatever products they feel provides them a competitive advantage.

On the desktop front, its all those little Linux distributions (from Slackware to Fedora, from Linspire to NLD) that are all "ganging up" against "bad old" Microsoft -- yet none of them has the needed capital, or marketing prowess, to develop a truly effective consumer-friendly competitor to the Windows desktop.

Today, only Apple's Mac OS X offers a truly consumer-friendly alternative to Windows. (Yes, I hear you all screaming at me but all of you Linux aficionados are techies -- not consumers who don't know beans about personal computers.) The reasons why Apple has not effectively penetrated the desktop market are complex but the driving force early-on was price. Today, lack of available consumer-grade software also plays a big role. Unlike many Linux desktop vendors, Apple controls its own destiny and has the business it wants.

Collaborations come and go but in a free market vendors will always seek competitive advantage over each other as they vie for the customers they want. Sometimes they want to sell to us -- and sometimes they don't. We pick and chose our vendors and they pick and choose their customers.

Topic: Open Source

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  • Implied pejoratives

    Must a "common denominator" be "lowest?" Couldn't it simply imply efficiency, ease of manipulation, and freedom unnecessary encumbrances? Couldn't "without many bells and whistles" imply the same thing. Must a standard be insanely complex to earn your approval? Or an application cluttered with a myriad obscure buttons and bloated with ad-hoc "features"?

    Simplicity and efficiency are not bad things, but the negative spin you put on them (i.e., "lowest" common denominator, your association of the word "cheap" with software that is merely "functional"--as opposed, apparently, to complicated to the point of unusability) implies that you think they are.

    Life is complicated enough as it is--denigrating simplicty and efficiency helps no one.
    Henry Miller
  • The problem, enemy and friend depends on day of the week.

    And "alliances" change constantly...
  • Lowest common denominator?

    I cannot believe you equate 'Open Document Format' with the
    lowest common denominator.

    Open Document Format (ODF) could enable all kinds of
    competition and lead to people picking an Office Suite based on
    their perceived utility or cost/ratio ratio, etc, etc instead of the
    using MS Office because everyone uses .doc files.

    Nobody complains because there is a standard for DVD's, we see
    that as a good things. Imagine ODF became the standard!
    Imagine Mozart had decided on his own music writing format.

    Lastly the consumer always benefits when products become
    commodoties. Economics tells us that products becoming
    commodities is a good thing. More people can consume them
    and since they are cheaper the consumer can have more 'stuff'
    which after all is what economics is about, satisfying as many of
    the unlimited wants as possible with limited resources.
    • Examples

      If a standard is always the lowest common denominator, how do we get standards like SVG that are so feature-packed that nobody has full implementations of them?

      Google has been demonstrating what can be done with CSS, as another example -- the standard is so capable that Microsoft hasn't been able to fully implement it and yet even MS' partial implementation can handle sites that get amazing effects without scripting.

      For those old enough to remember them, the DOD Ada language and original ANSI C++ were also standards far ahead of commercial implementation.
    • Doesn't mean it isn't functional

      Re: "Nobody complains because there is a standard for DVD's, we see
      that as a good things."

      Most people don't complain about it. But it's my understanding (could be wrong), for example that HD-DVDs can't play on standard DVD players. HD-DVD brings a clearer picture for those with big-screen displays. It's my recollection that HD-DVDs could only be played on computers with DVD drives. That's why I bring up the compatibility issue.

      That's an example of where the standard is behind the innovation. I don't expect open standards to be at the forefront of innovation. They play a needed role in providing a base layer of functionality upon which competitors can build innovation.

      I personally find the innovative features that are built on top of standards to be a lot more interesting and exciting than standards themselves. The standards provide the basic level "goop" that I need to get a job done. It's the "commodity" layer. The innovation on top of it makes it interesting, IMO.
      Mark Miller
  • Silly article...

    Microsoft does not need allies. It does not need people to help it in any way, shape or form. Microsoft offers robust products that fill a hole in the universe. When my users logon to Sharepoint, productivity shoots through the roof. When I deploy SQL Server 2005 servers, TCO plummets. For every action, there is a reaction. It is unreal. With my rep providing guidance and technical direction, I have destroyed all 3rd party software that once existed here. Microsoft has allowed me to rule this IT department with an iron fist.
    Mike Cox
    • Funny

      You are a funny, funny, man.
  • Great article

    Indeed, open standards are lowest common denominator, since companies take them and build on top of them. Due to the competitive imperative, each company needs to differentiate itself from its rivals.
    Mark Miller
  • Good spelling, poor research.

    Didn't notice a single typo or grammatical error. On the other hand:

    "Unlike IBM (and perhaps Novell), neither Sun nor Microsoft are threatened by SCO's antics, so they are free to collaborate against RedHat and its brethren in the Linux VAR business."

    It looks like you haven't been following this case at all or you would be aware that Sun and Microsoft have more to fear from SCO than IBM, Novell, RedHat, Autozone and/or Daimler-Chrysler. Rather than point out what you have missed there, since it isn't really germaine to the article, I will let you research it. This should help to avoid future non-sensical pronouncements such as:

    "In the UNIX server world, IBM, HP, and Sun are fierce competitors who find themselves nervously standing together ? selling Linux "on the side" in order to keep RedHat, SuSe, Debian, et al, at bay. (And, along with Novell, wishing that SCO would just dry-up and blow away. After all, without SCO breathing down their necks, they become free to blend the best of Linux and the best of UNIX into whatever products they feel provides them a competitive advantage."

    Selling Linux on the side makes these companies a good bit of money in support services on top of the software sales that it provides them. In case you weren't aware of it one technique in competing is to offer more and better products and services in the same space as your competitors. Currently IBM is ahead and Sun is back in the Linux game again after failing to make headway by opposing and ignoring it. This may very well change. Markets usually do.

    As to SCO keeping them from blending the best of Unix into their products you seem to be unaware that putting proprietary code into GPL software isn't permitted any more than putting GPL code into proprietary products and adding licensing restrictions that aren't in the GPL is permitted. For now we'll just ignore that clean room code development can create anything that isn't restricted by patents and that Unix code is so different from Linux code that the amount of rewriting needed would be so large as to make it more work than writing it from scratch.

    But I'll break off here and let you get back to your work.
    Still Lynn
    • Sun and Microsoft ...

      ... Sun has NOTHING to fear from SCO because Sun co-developed UNIX SVR4 in collaboration with AT&T. Nobody left standing has more clearly defined rights to SVR4 that Sun. Microsoft just bought their own SVR4 license from SCO so SCO has no basis to sue them either. In truth, it is only UNIX System V Release 4 (SVR4) that SCO has any claims on. UNIX BSD was re-written and vetted by the Courts years ago and everything else has fallen by the wayside.

      SCO has already revoked IBM's AIX license. If they prevail in court, IBM will have to pay very big bucks to get that license back.

      Novell has to worry about TWO things. (1) If the courts conclude that Novell really did pass on ALL of its SVR4 right to SCO (which would have been a VERY STUPID thing for Novell to do), Novell could be sued (as was IBM) for allegedly co-mingling SVR4 code with Linux code. (2) If SCO prevails in its suit claiming that Linux has violated SVR4 IP, or if the GPL is declared by the courts to be unenforcable, then Novell is saddled with an essentially worthless asset in SuSe. (Of course, the chances of either of these happening is virtually NIL!)

      The Linux vendors have to fear SCO prevailing in its claim that Linux has SVR4 roots. If proven substantially true, Linux is dead. This is also extremely unlikely -- unless some code-segment or another is found to be infringing, in which case, it will be quickly re-written. The only other threat would be if the courts found the GPL to be unenforceable. In my view, this is the least likely outcome.

      Yes, selling linux 'on the side' makes IBM and Sun a great deal of money but they could be making more if their customers were buying AIX or Solaris instead. If there were no Linux option, Sun and IBM would be in a much better position. Not as good for the customer but much better for IBM & Sun. (This won't happen either.)

      No, you cannot add proprietary code into the GPL unless you OWN that proprietary code and are releasing it INTO the GPL. If the courts determine that Novell still owns SVR4 then Sun and Novell could decide to do just that. Similarly, if SCO were declared to own SVR4 outright. However, none of the three will ever do that.

      In the end, the only thing that Linux has to offer that SVR4 does not is a price advantage. (Due mainly to the fact taht Linux resellers are still small nimble companies. IBM and Sun are not.) Functionally, they are identical, and UNIX remains more scalable.
      M Wagner
      • Being associated with SCO is the danger...

        Neither Sun nor Microsoft is in any danger of being sued by SCO. They won't survive to see their court date against IBM and they have no interest in suing Sun or Microsoft even if they could afford to do so. Not that they are rational in that regard, they have no compunction against suing other customers of theirs.

        What Sun and MS *do* have to fear from SCO is their association with them coming under greater scrutiny and the fact that the licenses that they paid SCO for were neither valid nor authorized. Can you say "Money for nothing?"

        SCO has no claims on SysVX either. They are a distributor. They do not own it or it's copyrights. They *own* Unixware and any developments in it that they have made. Novell has nothing to fear since the judge has already stated that no copyrights appear to have been transferred to Caldera, nee SCO, since there is no document that transfers them. SCO is trying to claim that the USL v UC Regents gave them something, their "easement" over the property theory, but you seem to be aware that this also will profit them naught and is going nowhere.

        SCO was prohibited from revoking IBM's fully paid-up irrevocable license by Novell who has contractual rights and authority to prevent them from doing so. Subsequent to that SCO revealed that the reason that they gave for "revoking" IBM's license (a deal that SCO was not party to in the first place) was not valid. They did not, however, rescind their [invalid] revocation declaration, they just let that slide.

        Before Novell could be sued for co-mingling Linux and SysVX code there would have to be *some* indication that that had EVER happened. And once the violation was suspected someone would have to not only find, but also present, proof that it had been done. If you are aware of it you may be the first (and only) one. This is aside from the fact that Novell still owns SysV and can use it for whatever purpose they wish as long as they don't compete in the Unix business with Tarantella, formerly SCO. Caldera wasn't a party to that deal either and Tarantella now is in the thin-client business competing with the likes of Citrix.

        SCO does not have a suit claiming that Linux has violated SysV IP, only SCO IP and they aren't saying (or showing) what that might be. They have publicly stated that there is no SysV code in Linux. They have stated in court that there are no trade secrets in any Unix IP that they either allege to own or actually own.

        If some court ruling that changes the world comes along then the world will be different. Until then it might be more useful to worry about meteorites as a few of them have come along and changed the world. Why hasn't any juducial system ruled on the GPL so far? (Actually, some have and the GPL has been upheld, but we're dealing with conjecture here, not with actual events, right?) When do you think that may happen? Do you know of any existing case that challenges it? SCO v. The World doesn't raise the GPL as an issue because they can't ; they released and distributed Linux under the GPL even after they said that it was tainted with their "IP". If they violated the GPL they are no longer authorized to distribute under it. Only their PR pronouncements claim SysV ties, the lawsuit doesn't.

        You could worry a lot less if you became acquainted with the details and progress of the case. The huge schools of red herring would vanish off of your fish finder immediately.

        Yes, IBM could make more money by selling AIX and Sun could [theoretically] make more money by resuming the sales of Solaris which they now distribute for free, not even a $20 download charge any more. And Microsoft could make more money by selling Windows to all the people in China, Brazil and whereever else in the world that prople install it but have no money to spend on buying it. In short, you can't sell something to your customer that they aren't in the market for. So to make some money rather than none they sell what customers can and will buy.

        So if there was no Linux how would that improve their position? They then would be back to selling Unix or nothing. At least with Linux they have an option. Why is IBM investing billions in Linux if they would be better off without it? Writeoffs to reduce the tax burden on their massive over-profits selling AIX? Think again.

        There is no real motivation to merge Unix code with Linux code. It's too much work to be worthwhile since the codebases are so dissimilar and it benefits no one. So, I agree no one is going to do that. I also assert (without offering *any* supporting evidence) that no one has.

        I agree that Linux has a price advantage. It also has an advantage in that it comes with source code so that in the extremely unlikely event that you need to you can change it and recompile it to do exactly what you want it to. Hardly anyone is going to want to do that. But some will. And they will be able to.

        Yes, Unix is currently more scalable and is likely to stay that way for a while. That's why it still has a market niche that it can't be displaced from and that justifies the cost of acquiring and implementing it. It's a good product choice in that arena. Solaris has a much better privelege separation system and their Zone system offers advantages that Linux doesn't. We could go on and on with who offers what and at what price.

        What will not go on and on is SCO v anybody-at-all. The clock is ticking on that and the money and delaying tactics are both coming to an end. There is much sound and fury in the idiotic tales they are spinning in the last days leading up to their communing with the void.
        Still Lynn
      • .. and Thank You..

        .. for taking the time and effort to respond to my posting. I *do* appreciate the thought and the work that you put into your reply and the other parts of the article in spite of my [excessive] snideness about SCO-related matters.

        Please excuse me for not acknowledging that before now. As you may have guessed I was a bit overzealous in pursuing my pet peeve with Caldera/TSCOG and for the negativity overflowing into criticism of you I apologize.
        Still Lynn