Halloween Document III (Version 1.6)

Microsoft's Reaction to the "Halloween Memorandum"

{Microsoft's famously adept spin doctors took some time to develop a response to the Halloween Documents. When first contacted on Monday, VinodV (the author of the original memoranda) said he could neither confirm nor deny their authenticity.

Pressed, Microsoft admitted the authenticity of Halloween I later on Monday -- perhaps because, as damning as it is, lying about it would have been even more dangerous while the U.S. Department of Justice's investigators are still pursuing antitrust action against the company.

But for most of the three days since, Microsoft HQ in Redmond has been doing its damndest to ignore the existence of the Halloween Documents and downplay their content.

Gates's flacks have not been able to remain entirely silent, however. Prominent Linux user Henk Kloepping succeeded in extracting a statement (in English) from Aurelia van den Berg, the Press and Public Relations manager of Microsoft Netherlands.

It's possible that this statement was simply a local initiative. Given Microsoft's famously centralized management, on the other hand, it's more likely a trial balloon for a P.R. line which, if it's well received, will be peddled in the U.S. Let's examine it together, shall we?

The original of this page is at http://www.opensource.nl/articles/1998110501.html. As usual, my comments are in green and curly-bracketed.

1.1 -- First annotated, Nov 5 1998 (day of release).

1.2 -- (6 Nov 1998) In a strange twist, Henk Kloepping reports having received an unhappy phone call from Ms. van den Berg, who allegedly claims that the memorandum issued was not written by her personally, but came from MS itself and asked that her name be removed from the Web page. Ms. van den Berg has not contacted me directly.

Indirectly backing up Henk's report, there is now an official response which is quite similar to Ms. van den Berg's statement. It is notable mainly for the clever way that VinodV's boss dodges the question of what the juicy phrase deny OSS projects entry into the market actually means.

1.3 -- (7 Nov 1998) Minor additions.

1.4 -- (16 Nov 1998) Added a hint for the sarcasm-impaired.

1.5 -- (1 Oct 1999) Corrected a stale URL.

1.6 -- (17 Nov 2005) CSSed this after moviong it off the OSI site..


On the memo:

It appears to be a document written within Microsoft in August, with some annotation by others.

{ That's right. Microsoft HQ conceded that much to Wired, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times three days ago. }

It is routine and appropriate for Microsoft - and we would assume all other vendors - to research, write about, and assess all competitors ... both from a business model point of view and from a technical point of view.

{ Yes, and it's routine and appropriate for vendors to discuss the measures they'll take against the competition. What is not quite so routine is to see the discussion imply a cold-blooded acceptance of methods including FUD tactics and dirty tricks such as de-commoditizing open standards into monopolistic lock-in devices. }

It is not an "official position" by Microsoft on Linux. It is a technical analysis written by an engineer in a staff capacity, and designed to encourage discussion.


Written by a staff engineer -- with contributions, endorsements, and reviews by two Program Managers, the Senior Vice President in charge of NT development, and two members of the eight-person Executive Committee (Microsoft's Politburo, answering only to Bill Gates). The only way this group could be any more official is if BillG himself were in it.

Given the participants and the content, the lack of an official stamp seems more like a device for preserving plausible deniability than anything else.

Ironically, if we take Ms. van den Berg at her word, the memos are far more more damning -- because that would imply a milieu in which FUD and monopolistic dirty tricks are not merely the province of a few top executives, but a pervasive part of the culture clear down to the level of staff engineers.}

On Linux:

Sometimes Linux competes with Windows NT. This is hardly news. But it is not NT vs Linux.

{ Considering that NT and Linux are the only two operating systems actually gaining market share, methinks Ms. van den Berg doth protest a little too much. }

Dramatically demonstrates the wildly different business models of the OS marketplace and the vigorous competition at every level (technical, alliances, applications, channels and business model) that characterize the industry.

{ Ah. Now, this is clever. Rule One of public relations: when life hands you a lemon, make lemonade. Ms. van den Berg wishes us to focus on the evidence of competition, drawing from it the conclusion that Microft is not a monopoly and the mean old Department of Justice should leave it alone.

Observe the conjuring trick: while feeling a warm glow about Ms. van den Berg's worthy competition in the abstract, we are distracted from thinking about the sleazy and destructive tactics that the memo describes for concretely competing.

Ms. van den Berg is earning her salary.}

In addition, however, Linux is an alternative to/competitor for other versions of UNIX, especially RISC UNIX - in fact this may be the more powerful affect in the marketplace.

{ Very clever. She's completely changed the subject now; she's not only gotten the reader to stop thinking about de-commoditization, she's insinuated that Linux will actually assist Microsoft's inevitable domination of the market.

And this, barely a few breaths after she has lauded competition!

This woman should write poetry.}

Has an utterly different business, support, and investment model from the comprehensive, integrated Microsoft model for Windows NT, which has attracted millions of developers and tens of thousands of applications.

{Good. Good. Now we add the implication that, by comparison, Linux is the eccentric preoccupation of a tiny tribe of malcontents living in the software equivalent of tin shacks on a desert island.

At all costs, the reader must be made to forget VinodV himself in Halloween I: More importantly, OSS evangelization scales with the size of the Internet much faster than our own evangelization efforts appear to scale. }

Linux is a philosophy as much as technical phenomena. On the positive, and Microsoft is interested in better understanding and finding ways to accommodate this dynamic, it provides for extensive peer review, and for a lot of independent parallel work on a variety of features.

{ Subtext: We at Microsoft will co-opt just as much of this magic as we can, providing it doesn't require us to lower prices, reduce profit margins, or cede control of anything.}

The negatives are stark, however:

  • no long term roadmap ... and no way to get one;

    { This, of course, is much much worse than being stuck with Bill Gates's single The Road Ahead, whether you like the scenery or not. }

  • individuals are a non-scalable factor in the development at various control points;

  • { Microsoft, on the other hand, never relies on individuals. All their developers are mutually interchangeable cogs in a perfect machine.

    (Note for the sarcasm-impaired: the above is an example of what rhetoricians call reduction to absurdity. Look it up.) }

  • no intellectual property protection means that the deep investments needed by the industry in infrastructure will gravitate to other business models.
  • { Pay no attention to the fact that open-source software is actually gaining market share most rapidly (and faster than NT) exactly where deep investment in infrastructure is most critical, on the Internet and in the Fortune 500. }

Unless Linux violates IP rights, it will fail to deliver innovation over the long run.

{ This final remark is worthy of an essay all by itself. It is the least logical -- and at the same time, most damning -- assertion in Ms. van den Berg's entire statement.

As propaganda, it has a superficial cleverness. It plants the idea that any MIS manager so foolish as to use Linux will find his operating system yanked out from under him by a future patent lawsuit -- perhaps one initiated by (whisper it) Microsoft itself. It's a perfect FUD tactic.

There are lots of pragmatic and legal reasons to believe this FUD is a phantom. But to wander off into those would be to miss the key point -- what it reveals about Microsoft's own assumptions.

To see why this is true, try out the claim Unless SCO violates IP rights, it will fail to deliver innovation over the long run. Or: Unless Solaris violates IP rights, it will fail to deliver innovation over the long run. Or, best of all, Unless NT violates IP rights, it will fail to deliver innovation over the long run.. Nobody has a natural monopoly on talent (and, as VinodV pointed out, The ability of the OSS process to collect and harness the collective IQ of thousands of individuals across the Internet is simply amazing.) If these claims are not credible, neither is hers.

If we believe Ms. van den Berg means her claim, we must deduce that Microsoft actually cannot imagine anyone inventing innovations that don't violate existing IP rights.

Perhaps this is understandable, giving Microsoft's own long record of buying or outright stealing key technologies rather than innovating. MS-DOS: bought (from Tim Paterson). PC1 BIOS code: stolen (almost bit-for-bit from Gary Kildall's CP/M BIOS). On-the-fly disk compression: stolen (from Stac Electronics). Internet Explorer: bought or stolen, depending on who you believe (from Spyglass). And the list only starts with these...

Microsoft truly behaves as though it corporately believes that there's only a fixed pool of key ideas, most already discovered, which software designers must squabble over in zero-sum competition until the end of time. In that game, the only definition of `winning' is cornering enough goodies to guarantee you a monopoly lock.

But this raises a question for everyone betting on a Microsoft future; can people with beliefs like that deliver innovation themselves? Or are they more likely to lag further and further behind a culture like Linux's, which perpetually seeks unexplored territory, believes in innovation -- and practices it with the exuberance that made VinodV observe the feeling was exhilarating and addictive.

The interpretation of Ms. van den Berg's parting shot kindest to Microsoft, then, is that it is a lie intended to frighten the gullible. If it is the true Microsoft line, it reveals an astonishing poverty of creative energy there -- that for all their billions and all their putative brilliance, they cannot truly imagine anyone creating anything genuinely new.}

Eric S. Raymond <esr@thyrsus.com>