Halloween XI: Get The FUD
22 Jun 2004
I've just seen a dispatch from the front lines of the FUD wars, Huw Lynes's report from one of Microsoft's Get The Facts roadshow in Great Britain. It's a fascinating read, especially when considered in context with Halloween VII and more recent leaks out of Microsoft. The outlines of the next stage in Microsoft's anti-open-source propaganda campaign are becoming clear. It's a good time to take stock of where we are, what our favorite evil empire is doing, and how best to respond.
(Writing code that doesn't suck always has to be our base-level and most important response, but the propaganda war matters too. If it's not already obvious to you why, keep reading.)
Let's start by reminding ourselves of the stakes. For Microsoft
(or at least its present business model) to survive, open source
must die. It's a lot like the Cold War was; peaceful coexistence
could be a stable solution for us, but it can never be for them,
because they can't tolerate the corrosive effect on their customer
relationships of comparisons with a more open system. (Anyone who
thinks I'm being perfervid or overly melodramatic about this should
Because coexistence is not a stable solution for them, it cannot be
for us either. We have to assume that Microsoft's long-term aim is to
crush our culture and drive us to extinction by whatever combination
of technical, economic, legal, and political means they can muster.
So, in evaluating the
One level is obvious. It seems to me very likely that Microsoft's UK tour is designed as a trial run of themes that they'll take to the U.S. to the extent they look successful. The UK is not a trivial market, of course, but 50% of all IT spending is still in the U.S., so from a Microsoft strategic planner's point of view that's where the main battle is. We can afford to pin some of our hopes on growth in Europe and developing countries and elsewhere, but Microsoft can't — the time horizon on it is too long for a company whose big challenge is to keep beating revenue expectations every quarter in a market where they have 92% share (if they don't beat those expectations every quarter, their stock tanks, the option pyramid collapses, and it's game over).
The Dog That Didn't Bark
So, how does this FUD campaign differ from all other FUD campaigns? Let's start by considering the things Microsoft is not doing in this road show.
Like the dog that didn't bark in the night-time, these omissions are significant, because Microsoft marketing is thorough and ruthlessly opportunistic. You can bet money that the reason they're not making these arguments is because they tried them on smaller focus groups, or individually with key customers, and they didn't fly.
The New Party Line
Now let's review what Microsoft is doing. Huw gives us five bullet points:
I'll take on all of these, but in reverse, saving the most interesting for last. Do I even need to point out that most of the factual claims are blatant lies brought to you by the same people who got caught faking video evidence in their Federal antitrust trial?
Belittling the quality of the toolset available on Linux actually reduces to a TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) argument, because what a poor toolset means to a manager is that he'd have to hire more administrators to cover the same number of machines. I'll have more to say about winning the TCO argument in a bit.
Use the Forrester report to claim that Linux is insecure. Huw didn't give a link to Red Hat's counterargument. It's a good one, and I'll build some recommendations for action on it later on.
Make a big deal about the migration costs of moving to Linux. Beating this one is easy. All you have to point out is that migration costs money once, but per-seat Microsoft licensing fees are forever. Unless Linux TCO is substantially greater than Windows TCO, the sooner you switch, the more money you save. (Yes, this remains true even given discounting of future expenses, unless you peg the conversion cost absurdly high.)
The really interesting and novel lines are Huw's report of
arguments 1 and 2: Claim that Linux isn't free and
Pretend that Shared Source is the same as Open Source.
Though these have been foreshadowed elsewhere, we haven't seen these
used as headline arguments before, and they add up to nearly a
reversal of the position Microsoft has taken in the past. Whereas
Microsoft has before tried to claim that its products and licensing
are different from and better than and more
innovative than Linux's, now they're reduced to arguing that you
should stick with Microsoft because
Linux isn't free. Hello? If there is actually anyone
still left on the planet who thinks the term
Semantic warfare — struggles over the meanings of words as
proxies for political or market positions — is just like other
kinds of warfare; you want to fight it on the other guy's turf, not
yours. Every minute we spend arguing with Microsoft flacks about what
This is also why we need to attack the
Taking It To The Streets
Notice how defensive a position Microsoft is in now. Trying to
neutralize open source by equating it with shared source implicitly
concedes that open source is something customers want. Microsoft has
given up a lot of ground here. Make them give more. Hammer them
without mercy — but do it in a quiet, reasonable voice and keep
control of the terms of argument. Here are some sound bites for
open-source advocates to use in response to the
The thing not to do is talk abstractions. FSF-style
To put the Microsofties really on the spot, it's most effective to phrase your counters as questions, especially when you can use them to whack Microsoft with a combination of issues like TCO and security. Like this:
What This Campaign Tells Us
We're winning, people. Microsoft has failed to stop us with better software technology or lower prices; they're incapable of the former and their business model wouldn't survive the latter. The SCO lawsuit isn't flattening our uptake curve enough for anyone to notice. The defections are mounting at previously captive customers; good recent examples include the French and Brazilian governments. Microsoft has to be particularly worried about the huge increase in Linux server shipments Gartner reported in 1Q2004; on current trends, we'll pass Microsoft not just in shipped units but in dollar volume early next year. They are not merely feeling the pressure, it has passed their pain threshold.
The choice of arguments in the
Microsoft's underlying problem is that it employs about 22,000 programmers; the open-source community can easily muster ten times that number. That means the capability gap that has opened up between the open-source codebase and Windows is only going to get worse from Microsoft's point of view, not better. Time, technology, and market forces are not on their side — so, to survive, they're going to have to change the game so that market forces and the open-source advantage in technology become irrelevant.
So what is Microsoft going to do to try to claw back control after
I don't doubt they'll get desperate enough to do that, though. The emergence of institutions like the Public Patent Foundation and Groklaw gives us weapons of our own, but expect some bruising battles ahead.
Expect Microsoft to ally even more closely with the RIAA and
MPAA in making yet another try at hardware-based DRM restrictions
— and legislation making them mandatory. The rationale will be
to stop piracy and spam, but the real goal will be customer control and
a lockout of all
I also expect a serious effort, backed by several billion dollars
in bribe money (oops, excuse me,
The most important thing the hacker community does is write better code. Our deeds are the best propaganda we have. Most of us, most of the time, shouldn't be distracted by worrying about beating Microsoft's PR or countering their political moves, because writing good code is in the long run a far more potent weapon than flackery. But some of us, some of the time, do need to be paying attention to the confrontation and propaganda aspects, lest we be blindsided in the shorter term by (say) super-DMCA legislation that instantly makes us all criminals.
Large corporations were the right first target for outreach five years ago,
because converting some of them was the most efficient way to change
the demand patterns perceived by the rest of the computer and software
industry. That trend is self-sustaining now; I think we passed the
tipping point about six months back, and the
But in the next year, I think we need to focus more on government adoptions, in order to protect our political and legislative flanks. We need to make the cost of suppressing us higher than the sixty billion dollars Microsoft can afford to pay.
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