Microsoft is not the enemy

The next time you find yourself cursing Microsoft, decide whether you want to give the company the implicit respect that devolves from choosing to take it on as an enemy.

COMMENTARY--In a recent essay, Bruce Perens noted that Microsoft's recent attacks on open source in general and the GPL and Linux in particular actually validate Linux. Similarly, an article in the Wall Street Journal noted that Microsoft's attacks have largely backfired.

In light of this, it might be worth noting that the ongoing streams of vitriol toward Microsoft and its proponents from many in the free software and open source community--myself included, I'm ashamed to admit--likewise do much to affirm Microsoft's position as the great paragon of the software industry.

Nothing confirms arrival quite so much as hatred, and nothing confers respect as much as the complaining we all do about those in power.

Just look at how much we love to complain about the president, the police, the system. How the "dot-commers" and their spiritual forebears the yuppies were chastised and derided. How entertainers like Madonna or Michael Jackson are universally pilloried even as their sales break records. How Shaquile O'Neal's popularity falls with each Laker victory.

As long as Linux folks rail against Microsoft, you can rest assured that Microsoft sits firmly on its throne of bits and bucks.

World domination
"World domination" is an ironic phrase that, early on, Linus Torvalds, if I remember correctly, and others used to put in their .sig files.

But Linux, like its cute penguin mascot, was never meant to dominate anything--quite the opposite. It was meant to free people from various kinds of domination.

If, as Thomas Pynchon's alter ego Wanda Tinasky was fond of saying, "for some people, you can't be too obvious", let's spell it out.

Microsoft dominates the software market. Period. Its products have a reputation for being "good enough", while its marketing tactics and predatory business practices repeatedly bring competitors to their knees. Large enough to undersell any competitor, Microsoft demolishes companies like Netscape by giving away analogs to the products these companies bring to market, including Web servers and browsers. (Yes, the current "free is bad" propaganda is pretty ironic, coming from them.)

Microsoft dominates hardware companies, making it inconvenient or expensive for them to ship systems without their OSs. It charges for "Designed for Windows" stickers. It throws its weight around in a lot of ways. Recently, the FTC brought a case against it for false advertising. For more examples, see Judge Jackson's ruling.

Maybe worst of all, Microsoft dominates individual users. Just as there's no escaping from Shaq there on the sports page, or Madonna in retail stores, or Dubya's face on the front page, most people have felt like they can't really avoid having to use Microsoft products.

While a lot of Linux and free software creators are probably just motivated to write good code, I think others really hope to free the computing industry and all computer users from the kind of bullying and domination that Microsoft has exemplified. They seek to do this not by turning the tables on Microsoft and themselves dominating the industry and the users. That's absurd--you can't dominate anything by letting people take stuff for free. Rather, they seek to provide for those who can't afford or just don't want to buy from a domineering company.

I remember the first time I figured this out. I was reading the home page of one of Linus' University pals, Lars Wirzenius's, I think, sometime around 1997. At the bottom, there was a kind of little footnote or colophon that said: "This page was written using Notepad on a Microsoft Windows system." This, in turn, linked to a short essay explaining that Microsoft would always have its place as long as it continued to make products that people like. Lars, for example, found Notepad on Windows perfectly adequate for making little Web pages, and could everyone please chill out with the Microsoft bashing.

No single company, not even Microsoft, is the enemy. Domination is. If a customer likes Microsoft products and doesn't feel unfairly dominated when he patronizes the company, then no one is compromised in the exchange.

So the next time you find yourself cursing Microsoft, decide whether you want to give the company the implicit respect that devolves from choosing to take it on as an enemy. Maybe there are more important battles around.