Microsoft could have killed off the open-source movement if it had tried in 1998, according to Open Source Initiative co-founder Eric Raymond.
Last year Microsoft launched a virulent attack on the open-source movement, and particular the GNU Public Licence on which open-source software such as the GNU/Linux operating system is based. High-level executives called Linux a "cancer" and a threat to intellectual property laws and capitalism itself.
The company has backed off from such public posturing since then, but Raymond said that if Microsoft had tried a bit earlier it could have succeeded.
"If they had done that in mid-1998... they might have buried us," he told ZDNet UK in a recent interview. "I was seriously worried that was a possibility, that they would turn on the hype machine before we had enough success stories and enough corporate backing to be able to counter that."
In the intervening three years, open source was able to gather corporate backers like IBM and to prove itself by running big corporate systems, Raymond said. "What happened in early 2001 demonstrated that we had already achieved enough mainstream cred and recruited enough backers inside the establishment, that when Microsoft tried it it just bounced," he said.
Open-source software is based on licences that require developers to make their improvements to the code freely available, meaning that no one organisation is in control. Linux, a Unix-like open-source operating system, has become popular for running Web servers and is seen as a credible threat to Microsoft's Windows monopoly.
Because open-source code is by definition freely downloadable, however, open-source software makers have recently turned to alternative models to make money. Sun Microsystems recently made the controversial decision to charge for its part-open-source StarOffice productivity suite.
Raymond believes the move will do StarOffice no favours, especially because its open-source components are freely available in the form of OpenOffice. "StarOffice just died," Raymond said. "If OpenOffice still exists, and it's GPLed, and they're going to start charging for StarOffice, then they just shot StarOffice through the head."
Creating a user-friendly Linux operating system is a major barrier to bringing the software to a mainstream desktop market, Raymond believes, and part of the problem is the lack of systematic, and expensive, end-user marketing research.
"I don't know how to solve (that) yet without a big player with a lot of money," he said. "The problem is they're not getting feedback from large-scale end user testing, and that's allowing a certain spikiness in the interfaces to persist that could be smoothed out otherwise."
Raymond says that the open-source model will be the most successful software development method in the future because of its ability to draw on large numbers of programmers without putting them all on the payroll of one company. This is necessary because software is growing ever more complex, and an increasing amount of work must be done simply to debug programs.
"All of the other verification models have run out of steam," Raymond said. "It's not that open sourcing is perfect... (or) in some theoretical sense necessarily the best possible way to do things, the problem is that we don't know anything that works as well... Open-source verification, the many-eyeballs effect, seems to scale pretty well."