It's time for Microsoft and the Linux community to end their media-managed "conflict," says Rob Enderle, and find ways to work together, or at least to avoid open warfare.
I've been thinking lately about the endless front-page coverage of the battle between Linux and Microsoft, especially prior to the recent WinHec conference in Seattle. I'm beginning to believe that this "battle" is nothing more than a shell game--the kind with three shells and no pea.
Don't get me wrong: Any time an editor puts Microsoft and Linux in the same headline, they are almost assured a good response, both on the Web and on the newsstand. Yet I get the sense that people are starting to wonder, as I am, if the media is taking them on a ride, or maybe they're simply losing interest in a "contest" between two groups that are clearly playing different games.
Microsoft and Linux are radically different in many ways, but there's no reason why this shouldn't create opportunities for both sides rather than conflicts. Both groups claim to value the same lofty principles, and they also share at least one very difficult problem. Yet when each side demonizes the other, and when the press sometimes encourages such behavior for selfish reasons, neither is willing or able to search for common ground.
Let's look at some of the issues.
Tale Of The Tech
Linux, much like Windows, is designed to work on low-cost, commodity hardware. Linux is also more community-oriented than its proprietary Unix forebears; its development efforts have depended largely upon voluntary code contributions, although it also owes many of its recent technological advances to gifts from IBM.
Linux works best in small numbers; it has great affinity for people who like to roll up their sleeves and learn how things work. Its costs lie mostly in labor requirements, and in the best cases, the people working on a Linux-related project treat it almost like a hobby and will donate prodigious amounts of time to complete it.
Windows is designed to reduce labor costs by automating most administrative functions but has traditionally limited code access to insure massive commonality and minimize support cost. Folks that prefer Windows are generally treat it as a tool but aren't particularly attached to it. Hobbyists, who use it, tend to dabble more in hardware then software and it is the preferred platform for those who modify PCs for fun.
In short, Linux is for folks who like to build their own OS, and Windows is for those who don't actually want to be in the software business. Both platforms try to appeal to each other's core audience, but both are so far removed from the needs of those audiences that it feels like a Rap band playing a gig at a retirement home: You have to wonder what these folks are drinking.
Personality Or Caricature?
People who dislike Windows consider it the product of an unfeeling company, whose only goal is to charge too much for low quality offerings, with a leader, Bill Gates, whom critics often portray as satanic. In reality, the quality of Microsoft's products is improving at a rate unmatched in the industry, and Bill Gates is currently the world's most philanthropic business executive.
Those who dislike Linux portray the people involved with it as anti-commerce and communistic--virus writers who care little about the pain they create, posses few redeemable social skills, and react explosively when people disagree with them. In fact most Linux users are more technically capable then their Windows counterparts, collaborate more effectively, and often contribute their time to support people and projects that many of us might consider competitors.
Both groups consist of good people, yet others whom others portray as caricatures exhibiting the extreme behavior associated with their core beliefs. Strangely enough, most of the users of the related products simply want them to work together and use them for very different things. Linux is used in situations with high traffic, low complexity, and where a great deal of customization is needed. Windows, conversely, is more suitable in environments featuring low traffic, high complexity, and standardization across platforms is important. Given these prerequisites, I'm actually not sure two platforms could be any more different.
A Common Enemy
Strangely enough, both groups have a common enemy: software-license scofflaws. I just returned from China, where the most common operating system shipped on new PCs is a unique, free version of DOS. Most buyers, whether individuals or businesses, never even see the factory-installed OS: Given a choice between free Windows and free Linux, Chinese PC buyers are choosing Windows, yet Microsoft never sees a dime from these users.
Freeloaders increasingly plague Linux, as well. Developers who exploit the technology without contributing something in return are, in effect, stealing the ideas of others to make the products from which they profit. It's a form of theft that may not carry the same legal consequence, depending on the type of open-source license involved, yet it is theft nevertheless--and it clearly damages both Microsoft and the Linux community, especially in developing nations. It is also interesting to note that in many such nations, neither group has adequate resources to fight back effectively.
Stranger Things Have Happened...
To compete directly against Windows, the Linux community would have to follow a model similar to the one Microsoft uses: Standardized, centrally managed, able to balance the power of OEMs and also to ensure the degree of hardware compatibility Windows users demand. Similarly, to compete directly against Linux, Microsoft would have to open its source code base to anyone who wants it and allow customers to pursue massive software customization projects,
Certainly, Microsoft could create a such a product, but it would not generate the margins shareholders have come to expect. The Linux community, for its part, might never be able to create a Windows clone; their development process makes it nearly impossible to impose such a high level of stability and control without becoming something they do not want to become.
One way to end this conflict is for each side simply to focus on what it does best. Otherwise, they'll continue to perform a high-tech parody of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a zero-sum game, where one side wins only when its opponent loses. And if the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are able to find middle ground, maybe the Windows and Linux folks can, too.
Many creative people seem to thrive on conflict, In this instance, however, neither side seems interested in accepting the other side's core values. This feels to me like a religious conflict. When people attach more importance to destroying the beliefs they don't agree with than to living by their own beliefs, you have the makings of a serious problem. While each side may feel justified, based on how the other has acted towards them, much of this is old news that's best left behind.
Strangely enough, both groups also have strong feelings about the value of freedom. If that is true, then maybe it is time both Microsoft and the Linux community allowed people to make their own choices, spent more time demonstrating the value of their beliefs, and spent less time attacking those who don't share them.
Rob Enderle is an analyst specializing in emerging personal technologies. He heads the Enderle Group, and has been an IT analyst since 1994. He spends his free time building computers and playing with personal technology prototypes. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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