Is the Linux preoccupation with Microsoft causing a loss of focus?
Lately, it's been another day, another punch thrown in the heavyweight cage match between Microsoft and the Linux community. It's starting to get tiring.
On one side, we have Microsoft Senior VP Craig Mundie, now clearly the company's anti-open-source poster child. It seems everyone has already forgotten about Douglas Miller, group product manager for the Windows Server Group, who seemed like Redmond's Linux-basher-in-chief just a few short months ago. I guess people didn't take Miller seriously enough, so Microsoft kicked the attempts to stall the progress of free software up the corporate ladder to Mundie.
On the other side we have comments from many high-profile Linux advocates. Last week we saw a clever and somewhat astounding publicity stunt by Bruce Perens, the author of the Open Source Definition and now employed by HP. Perens wrote an open response to Mundie that was signed by 10 of the open source and free software world's favorite talking heads. To me, the great feat of this letter was getting everyone from Richard Stallman to Tim O'Reilly to agree to a single statement.
But rather than feel buoyed by this show of strength, I feel sorry that such a meeting of minds was wasted on a defensive reaction to Microsoft. There's something unsettling about allowing Redmond to control the agenda of open source advocates.
The joint letter is generally dismissive of Mundie's complaints, almost smugly so. Nothing new there. However, if you want the specifics on what's wrong with his arguments, I recommend the straightforward, point-by-point rebuttal of Mundie at the ironically named site www.shared-source.com. (By the way, the unrelated domain name sharedsource.com has been owned since 1999 by OpenAvenue, another company involved with the open source community, so even the term "shared source" ain't so novel.)
Not to be outdone, Mundie is back with a commentary on ZDNet that attempts to rebut the rebuttal with little new information.
And this week, Red Hat CTO Michael Tiemann weighed in with his rebuttal to Mundie's rebuttal.
Time out--let's step back a bit and take a breath or two.
For the last few days, I've been having a lively e-mail debate with Tony Stanco, who has appeared in my column before and whom I consider to be one of the open source movement's better pure philosophers; he's pretty good at the 10,000-foot view of things. His latest analysis thoughtfully details how Microsoft's battle is not just against programmers and companies, but against an entire social upheaval that threatens the company more than any conventional competitor.
In our e-mail exchange, Stanco expressed concern that Microsoft's message, left unchallenged, will have lasting consequences. He believes that Redmond's current public attack is aimed not at conventional IT developers or end users, but at U.S. legislators and financial analysts. Stanco sees the Mundie message trying to attract sympathy from Washington, in order to blunt existing anti-Microsoft activities and possibly even get some anti-open-source legislation. At the same time, Stanco thinks Mundie aims to keep the financial community skittish about open-source companies, inhibiting the birth rate of new companies that may indeed solve the puzzle of how to combine open source and profitability.
While I don't see any chance of anyone pushing through laws to strengthen Microsoft's monopoly, I can see some prospect of success in the financial message. After all, given such situations as Eazel's recent demise, it's clear that venture capitalists and other potential financiers are going to make life tough for the next generation of open-source players. I don't know, however, if that's avoidable or even a bad thing: Wall Street doesn't owe anything to the open-source movement.
Microsoft is probably right when it says that the rise of open source will mean a smaller IT economy. It's possible that no Linux-based company will ever become as big as Microsoft, but I think that most Linux entrepreneurs are comfortable with lower targets.
As for Stanco's belief that politicians and financiers are only hearing the Microsoft side, I don't agree. While they may not care for what Linus Torvalds or Eric Raymond has to say about Microsoft's attacks, they may pay more attention to articles such as one in the Economist that wasn't very sympathetic to Redmond's attack.
It's also extremely telling to see Microsoft standing alone in its corporate condemnation of open source. It wasn't too long ago that Microsoft would send its messages through corporate partners and through friends in analyst and media circles. Such surrogates are notably absent in this current debate.
Still, enough is enough. In its approach to the situation, the Economist welcomed the Mundie-induced volleys as "sharpening" the debate.
OK. It's sharp. Time to move on.