From FUD to trash talk

Linux and open source as the alternative to Microsoft may have been recognized recently, this time by Microsoft itself, whose tactics have turned from FUD to trash talk.

My, how time flies. Things sure have come a long way since I started writing on open source issues for ZDNet a hundred columns ago.

At that time, one of the prime goals of my corner of ZDNet was what they called "FUDbusting." There was no end of misinformation floating around about Linux, much of it generated by fear and intended to confuse and confound people wondering what all this open source hoopla was about.

In the two years since, the complaints about Linux have gone from:

  • "It's just a toy" to
  • "So it's not a toy, but it can't run reliably" to
  • "So it's reliable, but there are no apps" to
  • "So it's got apps, but nobody's using it in a corporate setting" to
  • "So people are using in a corporate setting, but Oracle's not supporting it" to
  • "So Oracle supports it, but there's no commercial help-desk support" to
  • "So there's commercial support, but where are the hardware vendors" to
  • "So IBM's putting a billion bucks into Linux, but there's no enterprise support" to
  • "So there's now enterprise support, let me think of something else..."
One by one the objections have fallen. Bit by bit (pardon the pun) the people who code, document, and market Linux have dealt with the obstacles, technical or otherwise. This is not to say that everything has been perfect, or that there isn't still a very long way to go before Linux and open source computing achieve some of their still-elusive goals. But the community -- and it still is very much a community despite its substantial size increase over the last two years -- has proven surprisingly responsive to the needs of the computing mainstream.

Generally, most FUD has failed to stick. Genuine deficiencies, such as real SMP and ease of use, have been or are being addressed, with development and bug acknowledgments in full public view. Flaws are more often seen as challenges rather than setbacks. I myself talked about the post-FUD era back in August 1999, in which Linux-bashers, finding FUD no longer an effective tactic, resorted to name-calling and half-truths.

Now we see the beginnings of a new phase in the campaign against Linux -- a full-frontal assault by the company so many open source fans love to hate: Microsoft.

Some of the most interesting news from last week's LinuxWorld show in New York was the conspicuous attendance of Microsoft's Doug Miller, group product manager for the Windows Server Group. Like the fanatics who handed out copies of Linux during the launch of Windows 95, Miller's party crashing and willingness to talk openly about Linux indicate a new chapter in the story of the relationship between Microsoft and Linux.

Microsoft was unable to scare anyone two years ago with an indirect approach described in what has come to be known as the Halloween document. A little time, some strong Linux growth, and a court trial or two have apparently led the folks from Redmond to abandon the indirect approach and come out swinging. Barely a month after Microsoft President Steve Ballmer defined Linux as the company's main competitive target, Miller's comments gave some broad hints of how it is going to fight the threat.

To me, the direct attack is no surprise. Microsoft gave some indication of what was to come with this anti-Linux ad that ran in a German magazine. You don't need to read German to understand the message; even though the word "Linux" was never mentioned in the ad, the penguin character and mutations made clear that Microsoft is pointing to Linux's diversity as a fault to be avoided. Ironically, the best answer to this claim was a comment made by Linus Torvalds at last year's Linux Expo Canada:

"People from East Germany have found the West so confusing. It's so much easier when you have only one party."
Such comments from Microsoft aren't FUD; they're about facets of Linux and open source that most folks consider strengths, but that Microsoft tries to paint as flaws. They'll complain that Linux companies aren't, and will never be, as big as Microsoft. Of course they neglect to tell you the flip side: the reason Linux companies won't ever be as big as Microsoft is because they drain less money from their customers.

In any case, I welcome the onslaught. Miller's comments sounded more like a football player's trash talk than any legitimate complaint. A big part of Microsoft's problem is that the Linux community doesn't see the need to counter-attack or even play the game. While certain parts of the community will never let a bad word about Linux go unchallenged, most folks have come to realize that while the new "recognition" by Microsoft is bound to turn up some legitimate flaws, it also establishes Linux and open source as the alternative. And it also indicates the predictable flow of a pattern that I'm starting to hear more and more in Linux circles, based on a quote usually attributed to Mahatma Ghandi:

"First, they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win."
Do you think Microsoft's new approach to Linux will be effective? Tell Evan in the TalkBack below or in the ZDNet Linux Forum. Or write to Evan directly at evan@starnix.com.