Will the empire last long?
by Mario Miyojim for the Reallylinux.com Opinion Section
Recently, Microsoft started to sell a new operating system, Windows
Vista. There are a few reasons to believe that, this time, it will not
Microsoft seemed like a new kind of player in the eighties that offered a
low-cost operating system with development tools, a pretty face, easy
learning, and promised to replace Unix with advantages. The Unix
establishment did not see it coming, because they saw a toy that would
never invade its dominion, the high level applications that drove big
Besides, it never occurred to all the incumbents that
Microsoft would become a monopoly, since big IBM had once been defeated
at that game, and jurisprudence would take care of it in case it tried.
However, Microsoft used marketing skillfully and projected the image of
an innovative, smart, advanced enterprise that would benefit all the
common people worldwide.
Millions of IBM personal computers were sold at prices much lower than
for Unix machines, with a text editor and spreadsheet functioning
out-of-the-box, that is, one had only to plug the PC on the wall outlet,
connect the keyboard and the monitor onto the system box and voilà, it
The people did not realize they were being possibly misled, because perhaps the marketing of
Microsoft made them believe that everything else, Unix machines,
minicomputers, mainframes, were only for skillful and wealthy persons,
and for the majority of people, there was only Windows. DOS (Disk
Operating System), was not for the common person, however; special
knowledge of typing, memorization of line commands was required.
mouse was perceived as the device par excellence to communicate with a
mouse was invented by Xerox, copied by Apple into its MacIntosh
computer, which was copied by Microsoft into Windows. Its first Windows
OS was just a collection of graphics superimposed on its text-based DOS.
DR-DOS, by Digital Research, was in many ways better than MS-DOS. In the pre-launch
phase of Windows 3.1, MS included a message that popped up whenever
it detected DR-DOS, implying that it would not work well if it was not
with MS-DOS (although it was not true). The world learned fast that only
MS-DOS was good for Windows, so Digital Research went bankrupt
Software as an Industrial Product
Software is unlike industrial products. Trains, buses, buildings, are
made of materials existing in finite quantities in the planet. There are
limited sources of such items of material convenience. Software is
abstract, difficult to measure, does not deteriorate over time, can be
created by human minds without bounds, if the survival of their bodies
Having one's software be used by legions of people brings a
kind of satisfaction not measurable in terms of money; it is a heroic
experience. Microsoft, Apple, Oracle and other software makers seem to have
treated software like industrial products. They shrink-wrap copies of
software and charge unit prices for the license to use it under
an End-User License Agreement (EULA).
Each copy is worth a given amount
of money, and the source code is kept secret; a gold mine indeed. The
new personal computers come with the current Microsoft OS installed by
the assembler of the hardware, so the software is an integral part of an
industrial product, for which one pays a significant price. Because a PC
is to be used by a single person at a time, millions of computers with
software are sold every year, and each copy turns in a handsome profit
to Microsoft, year after year, higher than granted by its intrinsic
value, similar to the fashion value one pays for the label of certain
First, there was the GNU
Manifesto, where Richard Stallman told the world that it was unfair
that software companies made much money by hiding the source code of
useful programs. He dreamed of writing software that would be available
as air is. It was the first effective impulse toward turning software
into a commodity. He imagined people sharing software like households
share kitchen recipes.
One person who was tuned to the concept of
sharing software was Linus Torvalds, in
Finland, a young, intelligent and idealistic man who had a good
professor of software, Tanenbaum. Linus knew about the C compiler
written by Richard Stallman (the gcc), and used it to tinker with his
Personal Computer. Inspired by Minix, the OS used by Tanenbaum to teach
about OSs, Linus wrote a functional kernel under the specifications of
Posix, and made it available, over the internet, to whoever wanted to
cooperate in the effort; this kernel became known as Linux. Since 1990,
Linux has steadily grown, without fanfare or marketing, and has become a
major force that Microsoft cannot destroy. The Linux kernel originated
several distributions, collections of software with the Linux kernel, in
packages ready to go.
Cracks in the Monolith
Cracks in MS's image started to show in the mid-nineties. A
journalist noted the arrogance of certain Microsoft technical support
personnel regarding the malfunctioning of some peripherals under
Windows. Such technicians were so self-assured of their invincibility,
that they dared blame the malfunctions on the lack of knowledge of
customers. Viruses would infest the PCs and cause considerable
discomfort. A new industry became necessary: anti-virus software.
Viruses are possible because OSs have not been originally designed
for security or quality, only for beauty, speed, and the wow
At some point, MS
realized that it needed a better OS, more stable and professional than
DOS. They required technical talent from the
VMS team from Digital Equipment Corporation. They were hired to adapt VMS
to the Intel architecture. After a while, Windows NT 3.5 became
available, which worked reliably on Intel architecture. But this OS had
no images or sounds, no wow factor. Marketing
ordered programmers to make images and sounds available on NT, and
the programmers violated laws of software engineering in order to obey
the order; this decision alone made the OS unreliable.
The result of
that was Windows NT 4.0. It was more stable than the DOS-based OS's,
but it still would suddenly collapse under stress after a few weeks of
work, despite being touted by Bill Gates as being better than Unix.
However, Windows NT 4.0 lacked certain features to make it a fully
equipped network operating system. It took MS several years to come up
with Windows 2000 (W2k), which originally was to be called Windows NT
To me the decision on the W2k design was a turning point. MS had the
opportunity to fully rewrite the OS into a true multiuser, stable,
fresh, operating system. But to attain this goal, MS would have to break
away from the existing source code tree and give up backward
compatibility; third party application developers such as Adobe,
Macromedia, would have to redesign and reimplement their packages to
make them compatible with the new OS design. The danger was that these
developers would realize that their packages would become multiuser,
capable of functioning well with Unix and Linux, and the MS hegemony
could be overriden. The gain of quality had the potential of becoming a
So, the historical decision was not to redesign NT;
in order to make the new OS look perhaps like a redesigned one, the programmers had
to produce lots of patches. In fact, while NT4 had around ten million
lines of source code, W2k had about thirty
million! Quite a few patches, to disguise the true nature of the
monster. W2k was still unstable, but now, to avoid the shame of the blue
screen of death of Windows 98, it would reboot by itself when it felt
ill. Then MS created Windows XP from W2k, adding about fifteen million
lines of source code in the process--more patches! I had the
opportunity to install Linux for a friend who was complaining against XP
being slow and treating him like a stupid person all the time. Many
people do not exactly like XP, yet they have to live with it, because
they have no choice. Linux, on the other hand, cannot satisfy all their
needs, or so they think. Their workplaces are tied to Windows
applications, and have invested too much money in them.
A Vista Dawn or Dusk
Many years have
passed after the launch of Windows XP, and now it seems it is the turn of Windows
Vista. MS had to delay its launch, because the code base of XP could not
be patched further to satisfy the new safety specifications. MS was
reorganized internally and had to rewrite a good portion of the source
code of the OS kernel in a hurry in order to satisfy the specifications.
The Vista OS now has Digital Restrictions Management--DRM built into the kernel,
whereby one cannot copy or play certain music or movie files, and
the hardware has to be DRM-compliant. As a result of the new confusing
restrictions and hardware requirements, very few people bought a license
for Vista on January 30, nor in the following week. There was a sensitive decrease in the
MSFT share value; probably the investors are deciding whether they still trust MS.
The license price is too high for the average person.
Windows Vista's novelties are not yet fully reachable. A major
question is the availability of hardware to obey restrictions imposed by
Windows Vista. In that regard, one
wonders which market force will win, inertia or Microsoft.
Currently existing PCs running XP will be there for another 3 years
without the need of special hardware.
From what we know of past challenges, one might think, Microsoft would
obviously win, since it has plenty of time and money and marketing wisdom to wait until
hardware makers issue DRM-compliant models especially for Windows Vista.
There is the possibility however that if Windows Vista does not sell soon, the MSFT stock value may
nose-dive, because the stock market demands continual growth.
Although Bill Gates has already sold a
good deal of his shares to finance the Bill & Melinda foundation, he
still has a lot more untouched. If he sells another large lot of shares now
that the unit price is decreasing, people will interpret that as a sign of loss of faith
in the company future. Asked about the sales of Vista to corporations that started in November 2006,
Steven Ballmer, the CEO, said "Very well" instead of "We sold xxx licenses in three months", which is
a telling attitude.
When History Catches Up
This is a uniquely challenging time for MS on other fronts, too: the EU has unfinished
legal grievances against MS; China is adopting Linux for security
reasons, because it cannot trust Microsoft; Munich, a German metropolis,
is migrating to Linux for efficiency and security, and its example may
spread throughout the European Union; Novell + SLES is gaining momentum;
IBM is winning its dispute with SCO; the Ubuntu Linux distribution is
winning devotees. MS can't afford to lower the unit prices, due to the decrease of its market share.
In such a challenging time, Microsoft seems entirely self centric in its strategy and seems
to treat competitors like enemies in a permanent war, leaving no space for humanity;
perhaps the strategy weakens its very foundation. Modern corporations, especially the
multinationals, put feelings aside, and consider only competition in
terms of monetary gain and the stock market to decide their business
strategy, tending to be ruthless in their ambition to retain or grow market share.
I have reflected for long on the question of what I have known since 1995:
the Microsoft empire could not last, while Linux and Open Source
software would evolve and last for generations. Comparing the self centric take-no-prisoner MS with
collaborative, freedom-based, fascinating GNU/Linux, I found that the major difference that gives them opposed
futures has to do with something intangible but highly significant: humanity.
Written by Mario Miyojim this opinion article is published by reallylinux.com with permission.
It contains the opinions and personal experiences of the author at the time of publication. The opinions and personal experiences
that have been posted do not necessarily express the opinions of Reallylinux.com. Linux is a registered trademark of Linus Torvalds. Microsoft, Microsoft Windows, Windows Vista are trademarks or registered trademarks of Microsoft Corporation both in the United States and Internationally. MS is used in certain cases to further denote Microsoft Corporation. RedHat is the registered trademark for RedHat Inc. All other trademarks or registered trademarks in this opinion piece belong to their respective owners.
Linux is a registered trademark of Linus Torvalds. Microsoft, Windows Vista, Vista are trademarks or registered trademarks of Microsoft Corporation in the United Statest and Internationally. All other trademarks or registered trademarks in this opinion piece belong to their respective owners.