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Monday, August 13, 2001

Microsoft's only dread—free software
John Naughton

UMBERTO Eco once wrote an essay in which he argued that the IBM PC was a Protestant machine-grey, sensible, unforgiving, popular with accountants and offering only deferred gratification-while the Apple Macintosh was a Catholic device-sensuous, indulgent, offering immediate gratification and forgiveness on demand. (Presumably he was thinking of Mediterranean Catholicism rather than the Polish variety.) Once you leave the ranks of the enthusiasts, however, the picture changes.

Most PC users are agnostics whose attitudes to computing are utilitarian. For them, software is a means to an occupational end. As the majority work in a corporate world that is overwhelmingly PC-based, this means that most use Microsoft software.


But that does not mean they like it. For normal humans the idea of being attached to software is as bizarre as being fond of the tarmac on which one drives to work. People use Microsoft software not because they love it but because they cannot see a practical alternative: they inhabit a world in which they are sent Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations-all formats are proprietary to Microsoft and can only be accessed using Microsoft software.

This is the key to Microsoft's monopoly-the way control of a platform standard like Windows and of application formats like Excel, Word and PowerPoint has the effect of 'locking in' customers and locking out competitors. In computing network economics rule and the winner really does take all. And however much Bill Gates and his colleagues may bleat about the competitiveness of the computer industry and their fears of being overtaken by another company, the reality is that there is no commercial operation on the horizon that could conceivably topple Microsoft.

All of which explains why senior Microsoft executives are increasingly hysterical about open-source (i.e. free) software and, in particular, the Linux operating system. For that provides the one kind of competition that is immune to the aggressive corporate tactics in which Microsoft specialises. No one owns Linux, so there is no company to bribe, buy or intimidate. Microsoft cannot compete on price, because Linux, like most open-source software, is free. And the company cannot claim functional superiority for its products because, for many applications and in many contexts, open-source software is technically superior to its Microsoft equivalents. (The Code Red worm scare will have alerted many to the deficiencies of Microsoft server technology-only machines running Microsoft IIS software were at risk.)

In the old days, corporations were wary of Linux because it was difficult to install and came without technical support. But now installing current Red Hat or Mandrake distributions of Linux is easier than installing Windows 2000. You can now even buy machines with Linux pre-installed-and comprehensive after-sales support-from companies like Dell, Hewlett Packard and IBM.

The only obstacle remaining is the lock-in provided by the Excel, Word and PowerPoint formats. And even here, there are signs of progress-for example the AbiWord word processor, which mimics Microsoft Word to an impressive degree. The StarOffice suite (which has just passed its five millionth download) does the same for Microsoft Office, without costing a cent. We're moving to a point where there is a real alternative to Microsoft-even for agnostics.— ONS