Competing with the Microsoft ecosystem

Competing with the Microsoft ecosystem

Summary: In a blog post last week, I argued that the "theme" that unifies Microsoft's disparate product library was the creation of software ecosystems. Anti_Zealot, a regular Talkback participant, posed this question in response: I would like to read your opinion on what it would take for a Linux-based "theme" to settle in the software market, considering its current solid position in the server business as a tool.

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TOPICS: Open Source
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In a blog post last week, I argued that the "theme" that unifies Microsoft's disparate product library was the creation of software ecosystems. Anti_Zealot, a regular Talkback participant, posed this question in response:

I would like to read your opinion on what it would take for a Linux-based "theme" to settle in the software market, considering its current solid position in the server business as a tool.

Oh, of course, don't bother about the desktop. <elided> What do you think would be the most pragmatic move for Linux vendors?

First, it's worth mentioning that I consider open source, and all the products that currently fall into that category, as the only group of products capable of competing with Microsoft's ecosystem. Apple is too limited in its potential product range. The traditional Unix operating systems are oriented around servers. Only open source, however fractious, has enough spread to compete with a proprietary environment that touches upon most areas of computing.

That being said, what follows are the four areas of improvement that would better position open source as a true alternative to the Microsoft ecosystem.

1. More consistency: Ecosystems are essentially standards that extend across software markets. They simplify development by lowering costs, shortening development timeframes and leveraging knowledge across markets.

For Linux to build a proper ecosystem, more thought needs to be applied to what technology will be present on every instance of Linux. That's going to be hard, as one of the things that appeals to so many users of Linux is its technology agnosticism.

If Linux wants to solidify itself as the basis of a software ecosystem, however, they need to do what Microsoft has done, which is move far beyond the traditional conception of an "operating system" into the realm of development platform, where standard inclusions extend the development base against which programmers write their software.

Those who decide what constitutes Linux must make hard decisions regarding what becomes standard Linux technology. For instance, choose whether every system must include KDE or Gnome (but not both). Decide that every instance of Linux must ship with Corba, and which Corba ORB it should use. Every version of Linux should ship with Java or .NET (note: .NET would be an interesting choice because it would co-opt some of Microsoft's development efforts, but longtime readers already know I think that). Perhaps every version of Linux should come with Firefox preinstalled. If I'm right, and the existence of a standard HTML rendering tool boosts use of HTML in Windows products, those ecosystem improvements could be matched in Linux through the inclusion of Firefox.

That doesn't mean that other technologies can't be installed, just as alternative browsers can be installed on Windows. However, a consistent base-level of functionality would start to build ecosystem-style consistency into open source platforms.

2. Greater spread: I noted in my original post that ecosystems are only as valuable as their spread. That means that Linux cannot confine itself to markets where it is currently popular. Linux needs to spread, and that means they need to get more popular in desktops, handhelds, cell phones, music players, media technology, etc.

Fortunately, the open source world already recognizes this, and there is lots of work in this area. As previously noted, there is an awareness (albeit grudging) of the ecosystem basis of Microsoft's market appeal, and attempts to march Linux into new markets are a reflection of that.

3. Detente with the world of proprietary software: Now for the controversial stuff. The single biggest force holding back the growth of open source software are the Free Software vigilantes who view proprietary software as tantamount to slavery. That puts open source in the productive category of nations that prevent the female half of the population from working. Open source programmers do great things, but proprietary software can benefit from both the efforts of open source programmers AND the efforts of those who create for financial gain.

That's a waste. Philosophically, open source should move closer to Eric Raymond (who understands that there is a role for proprietary software) and away from Richard Stallman (who is on record as saying programmer's should make less money).

On that note, open source needs to make some compromise with the world of patents. Rant about the evils of the current patent system until veins pop out on your forehead, but it is highly unlikely that software patents are going away anytime soon. That means that in the interim, open source will have trouble leveraging the benefits of patented innovation. That puts them at a disadvantage to proprietary software, which can leverage both patented technology as well as the innovations placed in the open source commons.

In other words, open source needs to learn pragmatism. I'm not implying that there aren't those who understand that principle (Mr. Raymond has a degree of it, Miguel de Icaza has more), but more need to learn it if the ecosystem promise of open source is to be realized.

4. Encourage a paying market atop your products: This relates closely to item 3, but is a worthwhile separate point nonetheless. If the open source ecosystem must rely primarily on the contributions of the open source movement (something that will happen if Richard Stallman is its ideological head), they will be at a disadvantage to the world of proprietary software, which is free to harvest the output of those motivated by a desire to extend the commons as well as those seeking a house in the Hamptons.

Of course, there is nothing which officially stops companies from selling Linux software. There is a barrier, however, that derives from a culture that expects low-cost, if not free, open source products.

This is partly derived from the difficulties of deriving revenue from software as such when the secret sauce is published for all the world to see. Lots of people gloss over that problem by noting that there are lots of other ways to make money from software besides sales. Even so, it's worth noting that the web of companies that build software for Windows (and who form a large part of the appeal of Microsoft's platforms) are attracted by the profits to be generated by a pool of buyers with a demonstrated willingness to pay.

A similar buying culture needs to be built for the open source world. That will require, of course, jettisoning the "free software" philosophy which drove the movement in its early days.

Topic: Open Source

John Carroll

About John Carroll

John Carroll has delivered his opinion on ZDNet since the last millennium. Since May 2008, he is no longer a Microsoft employee. He is currently working at a unified messaging-related startup.

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150 comments
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  • What it will take...

    Time... I personally think it is an inevitability that some significant portion of the computing world will be using Linux or some intellectual offshoot of it. If it is for no other reason than to spit in the eye of America. The majority of the world isn't us, and don't trust us. Look at the Chinese, Indian and German initiatives. There is just too much desire to make it happen in the rest of the world. Even if it is wrongheaded, it'll get done.
    Zinoron
    • Right on Target

      I think you are absolutely correct. Just look at the evolution of Linux over the past few years. The strong push to use Linux as the primary OS in almost every country except the US will force more linux applications into the market place. Whether those applications are "FREE" or "Proprietary" doesn't matter. What matters is that there is enough selection of applications to make Linux a vialble option for the desktop.

      The superior performance of the Linux OS combined with more "usable" applications will start taking a toll on the MS installation base in the US within the next few years.

      It is just a matter of time.
      djc1309@...
  • So the way for "free software" to succeed...

    ... is to jettison the ideal of being "free software".

    To succeed like Microsoft products, open source products must become like Microsoft products.

    I like it.


    But, John, your four points are all really the same point. Windows is set up to make life easy for developers by having a consistent, broad set of capabilities. Each aspect of Windows you identify is associated with this principle.

    You're right, mostly, but you're using distinctions without differences to make your point.
    Anton Philidor
    • Re: So

      [i]... is to jettison the ideal of being "free software".

      To succeed like Microsoft products, open source products must become like Microsoft products.[/i]

      Basically, yes. Microsoft is vendor of the biggest software ecosystem ever constructed. If open souce wants to be like that, they will need to borrow from that playbook, just as lagging car companies should analyze the businesses of those who succeed and copy them.

      There's room for innovation, to be sure, but surely no one can say that Microsoft is doing EVERYTHING wrong.

      [i]But, John, your four points are all really the same point. Windows is set up to make life easy for developers by having a consistent, broad set of capabilities. Each aspect of Windows you identify is associated with this principle.[/i]

      True again, though I would describe my four points as like describing an elephant as something that has legs, head, long nose and thick body. All add up to an elephant, but each feature has their own useful aspects.
      John Carroll
    • Re: So the way for "free software" to succeed...

      [i]To succeed like Microsoft products, open source products must become like Microsoft products.

      I like it.[/i]


      Isn't that a bit like saying to succeed like the Dodge Caravan, Mercedes products must become like Dodge products? Would you expect Mercedes to take such advice?

      I wonder if Kubrick would have been a more successful filmmaker if making blockbusters was his personal measure if success. Perhaps, but his filmmaking would have suffered.


      :)
      none none
    • To beat MS you don?t have to be worse than MS. Use the opposite to MS model

      I?ll try to be as simple as I can.

      Microsoft has 95% of the market. It means that 95% of the World
      pays Microsoft for the same packages.

      If we will replace Microsoft with OSS under GPL ? logically the
      whole World (if the countries will make an agreement) could to
      buy only 1 set of packages at the time it was developed and
      SHARE it.

      For example, Microsoft sells the same Windows XP to the U.S.,
      Europe, Asia, etc. and each one pays fees to the SAME company
      Microsoft. Now imagine if they will make an agreement between
      each other and will buy only ONE license for all members of the
      agreement. They will save $billions.

      The problem is Microsoft or any proprietary company (e.g.
      Apple) will never agree on this scenario because it doesn?t match
      with their business model.

      Why? Because a typical business model is ?Homo Homini Lupus
      Est? (Man is a wolf to his fellow-man; one man preys on another,
      etc.). But this is a law for animals because they have no brains to
      cooperate. For mankind it has to be cooperation because it
      allows receiving more benefits vs. ?Homo Homini Lupus Est?
      model.

      So, if we will use the opposite to Microsoft, Apple or the like
      business model ? ALL mankind will be benefit including
      developers (compared to what we have now).

      How? All members of the agreement agreed to pay OSS
      developers for packages they develop but ONE license for ALL
      members of the agreement. The cost will be just a small fraction
      of what they pay for Microsoft now. Plus piracy will disappear
      because of ONE license (nothing to steal), more jobs will be
      available because instead of paying to ONE man ? Bill Gates -
      people can split the profit, etc.

      Everything on the top of the agreement is not free. For example,
      you get for free the basic: an OS, word processor, spreadsheet,
      browser, photo/video/audio editors, web tools, etc., but super
      features for the packages are not free. (The members of the
      agreement develop the core, the rest - the surface).

      To say it shortly ? each company and all other members of the
      agreement will earn more benefits (money, quality, etc.) except
      Microsoft. Judge yourself ? what is better ? to charge $1,000 for
      100 licenses or $ 1 from a billion people?
      Vily Clay
      • Depends on what question and whom you're asking.

        You wrote:
        To say it shortly ? each company and all other members of the agreement will earn more benefits (money, quality, etc.) except Microsoft. Judge yourself ? what is better ? to charge $1,000 for
        100 licenses or $ 1 from a billion people?

        If the question is, would you prefer paying or not paying for software, then Microsoft would say paying, and those who save money would say not paying.

        If the question is, would you prefer software that does more of what you want the software to do and encourages other useful software, or would you prefer instead software that does a minimal amount of what you want to do and may require some work on your part?
        An additional fact: the software that does more of what you want to do costs a small but not insignificant amount, while the software that does less of what you want to do is free.

        In those circumstances, I believe the world would be united in being willing to pay for value received.
        The results for desktop Linux so far confirm this belief.

        I recognize that there is nothing Microsoft products can do that is impossible to replicate. A system like Linux requires more work on the part of the developers because the base software does less for them.

        These developers could work atop open source. But first, they need a market, and second they need some assurance that open source imitators would not steal that market. The payment has moved from the operating system plus developers to developers alone.

        The developers may be leary of getting too close to open source, and they would certainly wish to avoid the complications of making their applications work atop Linux. (Which apparently is forking gradually.)

        I think many developers have decided it's better to stick with an operating system that makes programming as easy as possible, and has no hostility to payment among its backers.

        Ultimately, the issue you describe can disappear if Microsoft only prices its products such that the buyer does not feel the charge is either sunstantial or excessive. Marketing.
        Anton Philidor
        • Simplified summary ? I propose to pay less for more and overpower MS. (NT)

          (NT)
          Vily Clay
        • Even simpler: everyone WILL make MORE money except MS. (NT)

          (NT)
          Vily Clay
    • Why does everyone confuse "Linux" with "Free"

      I sell several products that were specifically developed for the Linux OS. Just because the product runs under the Linux OS does not mean it has to be FREE in cost or open source either one.

      Real Basic is a development environment that I use to develop software for Windows, Linux and the Mac OSX. This product is not FREE. Neither are the the products that I develop using this product.

      Linux has made a lot of progress in the past few years and will make much more progress in the next few years.

      The biggest problem I see with the Linux community is that they think everything has to be FREE. (Even what they produce). But there are several companies developing new software for the Linux OS that is proprietary and is sold on the open market (for a profit).
      djc1309@...
  • Monoculture for the wrong ecosystem?

    So your solution for the "Windows ecosystem" competitor is to lard down Linux with as many additional pieces as possible? All this to address an unkown consumer/target that you claim is what give MS its strength.

    Well, first off the people who want to get their Linux with a distinct set of features and software can already do that. This is value proposition being offerred by the various companies packaging distributions. Beyond that you're describing the extensive efforts already undertaken by many corporate IT departments when they make their system images for the desktop PC's. Even MS's "ecosystem" doesn't include all programs needed by a desktop so these have to be installed and configured after the fact.

    Additionally you continue to confuse the desktop OS with the real IT ecosystem that is the life-blood of companies and where the real dollars are made by IT service groups. We're talking about all those darn legacy applications and platforms that you just can't get rid of. Who cares if you've got the latest .NET or J2EE client on your desktop if the darn mainframe only speaks TN3270?

    You've put some extensive thought into this but I think your foundational premise is fatally flawed.
    Robert Crocker
    • Re: Monoculture

      [i]So your solution for the "Windows ecosystem" competitor is to lard down Linux with as many additional pieces as possible? All this to address an unkown consumer/target that you claim is what give MS its strength.[/i]

      Well, why do you think Microsoft is appealing? I hope you aren't of the opinion that Microsoft has somehow hoodwinked, conned and forced everyone to use their products. Well, if you believe that, and the competition believes that, it's good for me, as we'll have a 100 years of Microsoft's dominance.

      [i]Beyond that you're describing the extensive efforts already undertaken by many corporate IT departments when they make their system images for the desktop PC's. Even MS's "ecosystem" doesn't include all programs needed by a desktop so these have to be installed and configured after the fact.[/i]

      Simple fact: give me a bare bones copy of Windows, and I will have a 1000 tims more features out of the box, from a programming standpoint, than Linux. Linux can add all those features, to be sure, but once you do, you get no guarantee they all conform to the same API.

      [i]We're talking about all those darn legacy applications and platforms that you just can't get rid of. Who cares if you've got the latest .NET or J2EE client on your desktop if the darn mainframe only speaks TN3270?[/i]

      I really don't think that our modern software economy is driven by legacy mainframe systems. They exist, to be sure, and communicating with them is important, but I've been in LOTS of companies, big and small, and very few rely heavily on their mainframes anymore.
      John Carroll
      • Ecosystems and Economies

        Competing with one's own ecosystem is a little self destructive
        isn't it? Perhaps this is your point, morph into Windows or lose
        your air supply? Apple is summarily dismissed as a dev platform
        and Windows, prone to these occasional crises of confidence
        (worm attacks) could use some validation from an imitator. As
        though Linux doesn't parrot Windows enough already.

        An ecosystem credits autonomy and diversity and punishes
        conformity. Evolution requires disobedience. Your call for
        homogenization is a call for a parking lot not a park.
        Harry Bardal
      • Really, John

        Microsoft did not hoodwink or con anyone. They [b]illegally coerced[/b] OEM's, ISP's, IAP's, and competitors like Apple and Intel.

        Plese just read the judgement and address the facts of the case instead of trying to portray it differently.
        Robert Crocker
      • Simple fact?!?

        [i]Simple fact: give me a bare bones copy of Windows, and I will have a 1000 tims more features out of the box, from a programming standpoint, than Linux.[/i]

        That's a neat trick. A bare bones copy of Windows doesn't even come with .NET these days.

        Meanwhile a "bare bones" distribution of say SuSE comes with C++ compilers, all the source code you could want, web servers, FTP servers, DNS, and DHCP servers and tons of other stuff. (Heck even your choice of office suites and web browsers.)

        I really don't see how you get to that unless you are comparing a full Windows CD with merely the Linux kernel.

        As for your final thought. Where I work, the critical system for one group is a main-frame based application that they've failed repeatedly to migrate to more current ERP applications. If that system goes down work stops and millions of dollars are lost. That would seem to strike me as an economic driver. Mind you, this is a large multinational company.
        Robert Crocker
        • Get your facts straight!

          The .NET framework ships on all Microsoft OS CDs.
          ShadeTree
    • John / Robert

      John, you are absolutely right in that I have a MUCH better chance of an application written for Windows running "out of the box" when installed, ESPECIALLY when it comes to multimendia.

      Robert you are right, I could bundle the pieces parts, but then maintaining them also becomes my problem. Most users are not going to become Linux geeks and track all the upgrades/patchs and I've not seen a reliable version of Microsoft's auto update from any of the Linux distros. (Can I assume you would not tell Joe Average user to set up Linux and critical business apps on Linux without support? If so that is another added cost.)

      The other thing is that while yes there may be hardware drivers out there, rarely are they on par with the Windows drivers. I look at even running our networked office printer. There is a Linux driver, but it is not capable of delivering all the features the Windows counter part does. I tease the Linux guy because he always complains and I tell him hey, it's open source right? Come on in on your own time and re-write it. About then is when he falls back to talking with hand gestures. ;-)

      You see, I am not willing to pay for the man hours to write a better driver if I don't have to. Heck, I don't even want him spending time trying to find a better driver, it simply isn't worth it to me. Not only would I be paying him for doing the work/looking, I also end up paying for not doing the work that should be done. I could EASILY eat the cost of Windows in a fraction of a day.

      While both of you guys talk about the software world, you are ignoring the fact it's the entire PC indusrty. The truth is, hard drives, video cards, sound cards, displays, even keyboards and mice are all built Microsoft centric. They are part of the Microsoft ecosystem. (See who has offices around the MS campus!) Yes the alternative exists, in small numbers, and usually a generation or two behind.

      Now John, here is where I bash your article a bit. I do not believe open source can duplicate the Microsoft ecosystem nor should they try. That sort of competition between the little guy and the giant is doomed to fail before it gets started. No, open source must adopt the "small business attitude" if it is going to compete against Microsoft in a meaningful way in software. (Just ask IBM...)

      The small business attitude is to start doing something (almost anything) BETTER than the big guy does and then be fleet of foot in getting it done. Fleet of foot is not something I equate with open soure or their desire to use only standards in everything.

      Not better that it takes a bench test to prove, or claims of security that can't really be tested (Linux is a tiny target, so was open source FireFox, then look what happened when FF picked up market share.) I mean BETTER! Visibly BETTER. Obvious BETTER. Shout at the world BETTER. Increases web traffic to news sights by 40% BETTER. Like a jet engine in a fighter plane was BETTER.

      Take a page out of any good small business and find a niche you can make BETTER and then build out from there. It's the only way the "little guy" has ever won in the market against a giant. Remember this, Microsoft WAS the little guy in the world of software, they did something BETTER and built today's giant. Oh and before you say it, BETTER can also apply to how a product is delivered and the percieved value instilled into the consumer...
      No_Ax_to_Grind
      • a BETTER reply

        You're right.

        They built something BETTER. Better than what would be the question.

        It was so much better that they:
        1) Originally forced OEM's to pay licenses on ALL CPU's sold rather than simply on actual boxes shipped with Windows.

        This led to their first BETTER Consent Decree.

        Later they decided their product was so much BETTER that they said to Compaq:
        You'd BETTER stop installing Netscape or we'll cancel your Windows OEM license.
        They said to Intel:
        You'd BETTER stop developing software for Linux or else.
        They also said
        "You'd BETTER" to Apple, various ISP's and IAP's.

        Hell they even tried to say "You'd BETTER not force us to alter Windows or it'll break" to the DoJ.

        Yup, they're definitely better.
        Robert Crocker
        • Interesting language you use

          Re: "It was so much better that they:
          Re: 1) *Originally* forced OEM's to pay licenses on ALL CPU's sold rather than simply on actual boxes shipped with Windows."
          [my emphasis on "Originally"]

          Really? So Microsoft only came into existence 15 years ago?? In case you never bothered to look it up, Microsoft got started in 1975 operating out of a motel room in Albuquerque, NM. Their first product was MS-BASIC for the Altair, a machine that originally could only be operated by flipping switches on the front panel. Yeah, they helped make it better. Apple used a version of MS-BASIC for the Apple II so that people who bought one didn't just have a machine monitor to use to get something done (to give you an idea, imagine typing only in hexadecimal to run a program...).

          In case you didn't notice, what No Ax was talking about was that open source should emulate what MS did *when they got started 30 years ago!*
          Mark Miller
          • Huh

            So you nit pick one word. My point was that before MS's current bout with anti-trust they had one earlier and that was definitely a lead factor in gaining dominance back when there was more competition in the DOS world.

            No Ax was not talking about the MS of old. Neither was John. This whole disucssion has been about John's misguided "ecosystem" and how that's what has led to MS's dominance.
            Robert Crocker