Why criticize Microsoft for giving away free software? It's the trend nowadays!

Why is Joe Wilcox (Microsoft Watch) criticizing Microsoft for giving away free software? Dosen't he realize that this is the modern trend?
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

Why is Joe Wilcox (Microsoft Watch) criticizing Microsoft for giving away free software?  Dosen't he realize that this is the modern trend?

Wilcox seems to be taking a very narrow view of the software market.  Yes, Microsoft is giving away a lot of free software nowadays, and it also has a fair range of low-priced software and services, but if you take a broader picture of the market, the truth is that companies like Microsoft and Apple are now selling "products" rather than "hardware" and "software", so there's more and more software bundling going on than ever. 

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Here's how Wilcox sees the market:

"Many factors account for Microsoft's success, but two longstanding business practices stand out: release of software that achieves a "good enough" standard and offer of lower-cost, or free software that enhances the value of its platform products like Windows."

Let's just look at operating systems for a moment.  Is Microsoft the only company that uses "free software that enhances the value of its platform products?"  Of course not!  Just take a look at Mac OS and any Linux distribution.  These all include free software that adds value to the operating system and which allows the user to get on and do stuff straight away.  And it's not just operating systems.  All across the hardware market (from cell phones to GPS receivers) manufacturers are bundling software that adds value along with their devices.  Is Wilcox suggesting that Microsoft shouldn't be doing this but it's OK for the rest of the industry to be doing it?  Microsoft bundles Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player with Windows, Apple bundle Safari and iTunes.  So what.

And while we're thinking about Linux, what about open source in general?  Does he disagree with the principals behind free software? 

Let's move on and look at another area that Wilcox looks at from a Microsoft-only viewpoint - browsers.  Here's Wilcox's take on Internet Explorer:

"Lower cost is a good tactic, but Microsoft has done much better with free—and really valuable technology. Probably the best-known example is Internet Explorer, which Microsoft integrated into Windows during the browser wars with Netscape. While Netscape had to separately sell its product, Microsoft could give away its competing software for free. Microsoft regarded its Web browser as adding value to Windows, so it gave away the technology as a way of enhancing the appeal of the operating system and subsequently sales."

This is just revisionist history and is plain wrong.  Microsoft didn't kill Netscape.  Netscape killed itself.  With Navigator 3, Netscape went ahead with HTML 3 where no standard existed.  And then with Navigator 4 they released a browser that was incompatible with HTML 4 and the DHTML that web developers wanted to do at the time.  I know.  I was there.  Another point worth noting is that Microsoft was late entering the free browser game.  They weren't the first.

While on the subject of browsers, it's odd that Wilcox has nothing to say about Firefox.  The Mozilla Foundation is no Microsoft but it is using a free browser to bankroll millions of dollars.  Is that wrong?

And what about Virtual PC 2007?  Again Wilcox is ignoring the fact that Microsoft is late entering the virtualization game.  VMware already offer free software that offers similar functionality to Virtual PC 2007.  As a VMware user I'm pretty sure that I won't be ditching VMware Workstation and switching to Virtual PC 2007, and I'm sure most VMware users will feel the same way.  They target entirely different segments of the market.

The thread running through the article on Microsoft Watch seems to be that Microsoft is releasing free software in order to gain a market share, and once they have that market share, they can do whatever they want, maybe charge you a fortune for the next version or something like that.  Problem is, I don't really see Microsoft leveraging their market share that much at all (unlike companies such as Google which is aggressively leveraging its market share).  Most products that Microsoft offer for free are poorly marketed.  How many people know about Virtual PC 2007, Visual Studio Express or Office Accounting Express?  Outside of tech circles I bet it's not many. 

Sorry Joe, but free software that is, as you say, just "good enough" is the way things are now. 

What are your thoughts on free software?  Do you believe that it harms existing businesses or is the "free" market different to the "paid for" market?

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