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Windows and Linux: Time for Microsoft to Cede to Coexistence

Microsoft did its best to prevent mainstream adoption of open source software, but the battle is all but lost. Microsoft's next move must be to port its tools and applications and set developers free to build the future on both platforms.




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San Francisco—At a somewhat anemic LinuxWorld 2003 conference in San Francisco, big-corporation Linux supporters showed that Linux has grown up and "gone mainstream," according to Peter Blackmore, Executive Vice President of the Enterprise Systems Group at Hewlett-Packard, who gave the opening keynote Tuesday. And it's true, Linux has grown up. It's good enough as a server operating system to have garnered a growing share of the corporate mission-critical server market. The government of China has decreed that all public sector servers and desktops will run Linux. The GNOME project reports that the regional government of Extremadura, Spain has deployed 80,000 Linux/GNOME clients in schools.

LinuxWorld is driven by enterprise-level software vendors such as IBM, Sun, and Novell, and by budding enterprise open source vendors such as Red Hat, MySQL, SuSE, and others—all of whom are trumpeting the impending triumph of open source over "that other OS vendor," and all of whom profit at least in part by capitalizing on the fact that Linux is free.

The key word here is "free." Because it's free (sort of), there's a groundswell of adoptions for open source in the public and military sectors that will accelerate as politicians and the public realize that pushing Linux into schools and governmental offices can, temporarily at least, help stretch their budgets. And it's for this reason that Microsoft needs to stop fighting against open source and begin targeting Linux with its development tools.

Of course, Microsoft has already targeted Unix with its shared-source, non-commercial Rotor project, an ECMA CLI, and ECMA C# language implementation that runs on FreeBSD, Mac OS X 10.2, and Windows. You can download Rotor, look at and experiment with the source, and alter anything you like—as long as you don't sell or commercialize the result. But FreeBSD and OS X versions aren't Linux versions, even if they're close. Shared source isn't open source, and commercially restricted versions don't help Microsoft developers deliver software for Linux. So far, Microsoft isn't targeting Linux publicly. Rotor simply shows that Microsoft could target Linux if it wanted to. I think it should.

Why Target Linux Now?
The time is ripe for Microsoft to target Linux because Microsoft can't afford to be pushed out of those markets where open source is being rapidly adopted—important institutional markets such as education and government—because that's where future developers get their training, and where some of the most innovative research and development occurs.

If students graduate with .NET, IIS, SQL Server, and MS Office experience, they'll push to keep .NET and MS technology in the companies where they eventually go to work. On the other hand, if their educational experience centers around Linux, Apache, Java, and OpenOffice, they'll be perfectly happy to skip learning Microsoft technologies altogether.

How Free is Free?
There are more than 100 Linux distributions. These are for-profit bundles of the Linux kernel and selected sets of GUI, installation, productivity, management, and utility applications. Most or all of these bundled applications are free as well, meaning you could download them yourself rather than pay a vendor for them. But most people and most corporations won't. Why not? Because the free versions are unsupported; if you want support, you have to either learn how to fix it yourself, or beg for help from the Linux newsgroups. Neither choice warms the corporate, governmental, or average user's heart; they want their OS guaranteed and supported by a company, someone they can call (and blame) when problems occur. Home users want a boxed version with a warranty, some directions, and a simple, bulletproof installation.

Jeremy White, CEO of Codeweavers, Inc. gave the analogy that Windows is like a Sears pre-built house. You can buy one and move right in. It's a fine house, but it costs money, and the design is fixed. Sure, you can alter the paint, carpet, and furnishings, but you're stuck with the basic plan. In contrast, Linux is more like free lumber. You can build any plan you wish, but you have to build it yourself.

In addition to the free-but-packaged-for-profit software, there are a number of companies providing third-party utilities and applications programs that run on Linux. These aren't free or even necessarily open source programs; they're applications that simply target the Linux OS. In other words, these companies are doing with Linux exactly they've been doing with Windows for years: piggybacking on the availability of the OS to sell additional services and applications.

If these companies can target Linux and make a profit, so can Microsoft. After all, Microsoft has extensive experience porting complex software to other platforms (think Apple and FreeBSD). More than that, Microsoft has a user base and a developer base that's second to none.

In addition, the open source community has been hard at work emulating Windows' features and repackaging them in open source versions. In his LinuxWorld keynote Tuesday, Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's Executive Vice President, Software Group, showed a slide detailing how Sun's Mad Hatter software bundle competes feature for feature with software Windows users have come to expect. Almost every major Windows application now has an open source counterpart, and sometimes several.

For those applications where no open source counterpart exists, or for those who absolutely refuse to give up their Windows applications, you can sometimes run the Windows applications directly on Linux via the Why It's Not an Emulator (WINE) Windows API implementation. Because it's not an emulator, WINE runs these applications at near native speeds. Currently WINE runs Microsoft Office, Photoshop, and many other Windows applications.

The point is not so much that open source is copycatting Microsoft but rather that open source vendors understand that Linux users, especially the great mass of potential Linux users, aren't any different from Windows users. They want the same applications, with the same features, the same ease of use, and largely, the same look and feel. As Linux moves beyond the hobbyist and server space into the corporate and home desktop space, there will be an increasing number of Linux users who genuinely don't care whether their applications are open source, and in fact would probably rather use their familiar Microsoft applications, if they are available, than retrain on unfamiliar and less mature applications.

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