Microsoft and free software? I don't think so...

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Microsoft turn to free software? That'll be the day. Some have suggested that Microsoft might embrace free software and thus resolve the present conflict. That actually would be a terrific strategy for them, but I don't think that Microsoft is smart enough to do it.

Habits of the juggernauts

Corporations are creatures of habit. They aren't human beings, something that we need to be reminded of constantly; as humans we have evolved to deal with humans, and so we anthropomorphize everything. But while a corporation has some of the rudimentary characteristics of a person, it isn't a person.

Corporations are creatures of habit

In fact, if you were to put the characteristics of a corporation into an individual being, you'd wind up with a Stsho (a fictional being from C.J. Cherryh's Chanur series, which I suspect was inspired by this very idea). For those who haven't read it, the point is: "alien" and "exasperating".

But in any case, corporations don't change their "minds" as easily as humans do, or at least not in the same ways. They're likely to change markets or products, but to fundamentally change strategy is very difficult for them.

That's because corporations are actually made up of lots of minds, and changing strategy means changing a lot of people's behavior and fundamental beliefs (which, as you no doubt know, is Hard, with a capital "H"). Changing products or markets is as simple as opening a new division and hiring new people—something a human would find hard, but a corporation can do at the drop of a hat.

So, I'd suspect it's much more likely that Microsoft will shift sideways, perhaps into its media interests or some other prospect, rather than try to change "its ways".

The plight of the pacesetter

Of course, Windows may eventually become free software. The optimum time to do it, though, is right before ReactOS manages to produce a fully working clone.

I've seen this pattern happen several times with software packages. Somebody has a non-free package that is well-liked, but it's non-free, so free software developers put enormous time and effort into "reinventing the wheel" (the enormous waste cost of our present IP regime), in order to liberate that particular piece of functionality.

As long as there is no free software alternative, the proprietary company can continue to milk the marketplace, so they never choose to free license.

As long as there is no free software alternative, the proprietary company can continue to milk the marketplace

But of course, as soon as blood, sweat, and tears have been shed by free developers to re-create all of that function from scratch, the market value of the proprietary product plummets, and the only way to recover the income is to put a free-license on the proprietary product.

The proprietary company then gets enormous kudos for "magnanimously" freeing its product as a "gift" to the community, and comes out smelling like roses, even though their behavior was actually a lot more like the stuff you grow the roses in.

Of course, that sidelines the free project; making all of its effort "wasted", in the sense of "unused". Although we might rationally say that it wasn't a waste, it must really feel like it was to the people who put in all that work.

Worse, of course, this is no doubt appreciated by many would-be software category liberators before they manage to create a good enough "pacesetter" product to force the proprietary competitor to turn to a free software strategy. Which of course, leads to an extension in how long the proprietary product maintains its stranglehold on the marketplace.

ReactOS is still an "alpha", after more than 10 years of development

ReactOS, after all, is still an "alpha", after more than 10 years of development. And even if they completely succeeded, many people would run the product down as a "knock-off", completely missing the real value of such a project. It must be hard.

Windows, or something like it

I suspect that in this way, we'll eventually see Windows (or something like it) become available under a free license. If Microsoft wanted to really buy its way into community acceptance, it could do it pretty cheaply by donating the entire Vista codebase to the ReactOS project.

That would alleviate the bad-blood I mentioned in the previous section (because the interloper would become part of the pacesetter rather than competing with it—properly crediting the people behind it for their effort).

It would also relieve Microsoft of the burden of support a product which is rapidly becoming irrelevant. Not a lot of people are switching from earlier Windows to GNU/Linux, but not a lot of people are switching to Vista either. And while that means Windows still has a lion-size mindshare, its marketshare is not living up to its own expectations.

Strategically, Microsoft should release Windows code under a free license only when it is absolutely irrelevant to its future business plans. But it is possible that that time is now.

Even without it, though, since the Windows OS is stagnating, with few people wanting to "upgrade" to Vista, that means a lot of software will probably continue to be written for earlier versions. And that makes good emulation a no-longer-moving target for ReactOS, which increases the chance of them catching up.

And even if, by some miracle, Microsoft manages to get users to switch to Vista, selling the next upgrade is going to be that much harder. And Microsoft has already hit the point of diminishing returns within the proprietary development model (which is why Vista was way overdue and buggy). Not to mention that even relatively clueless end users are starting to pick up on the fact that, marketing hype aside, each generation of Windows is designed to restrict their freedom more and more.

Kicking and screaming

On the other hand, I'm not so sure that Microsoft will take the strategically optimal route. They've gotten awfully accustomed to blaming their customers and would-be customers for their own failings, and have increasingly turned to legal and political maneuvering as a way to stay in business. But those are desperation measures: continuing on that path will drive them into the ground.



Ryan Cartwright's picture

Nice post.

This ...

So, I’d suspect it’s much more likely that Microsoft will shift sideways, perhaps into its media interests or some other prospect, rather than try to change “its ways".

...seemed to echo my sentiments that in order for Microsoft to survive they would have to change into something that does not resemble what they are now. This of course is what businesses do in order to survive: witness the change in IBM from a desktop hardware supplier to what is tantamount to a services company.

I'm certainly not going to sit here and argue that Microsoft will change because I think they are as stupid as you do. So even considering what I said in my post I do think it unlikely that Microsoft will adopt free licencing in the truest sense. I do think they will eventually need to, as will all proprietary software companies or else get out of the software business. This is because I am convinced the software "business" is going to eventually be changed for good by free software. I don't know when or how it will happen but now that free software is out of the bag and gathering momentum, it will happen--did I say I was an optimist?

So to reclaim something from that phrase you're planning on stealing: Microsoft will have to change because sooner or later the rest of the world is going to figure out that they shouldn't be buying air in the same way as apples.

mmmmna's picture
Submitted by mmmmna on

The whole point of a corporation (and by extension Microsoft) is revenue streams. Microsoft releasing their operating system as open source would need said corporation to already be making money via some other revenue stream. I cannot recall any time in history that a corporation even a tenth as large as Microsoft has voluntarily closed shop in the face of similar competition. The closures of larger corporations are almost always rooted in failure to continue a revenue stream (after all legal suits, share holder disbursements, etc. were subtracted). Hence we can see that Microsoft will need to change income resources despite share holder directives to produce dividends, a daunting task.

I cannot see Microsoft completing such a conversion any time soon. Microsoft announced they aren't taking over Yahoo!, and Microsoft's other online services seem to be oriented at excluding FOSS oriented users - in other words, in their private clubs, they only orient themselves towards the successes of the products in Microsoft revenue streams. Microsoft is seeing to it that FOSS is getting badmouthed, indicating that internally, there is minimal management orientation towards adoption and integration with FOSS.

That said, I summarize that 3 key elements of FOSS adoption are missing: 1] Microsoft still wants to make money by indenturing its consumers, 2] their audience wants to trust only commercial software and 3] Microsoft wants it that way when they continue to badmouth FOSS.

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Terry Hancock's picture


Terry Hancock is co-owner and technical officer of Anansi Spaceworks. Currently he is working on a free-culture animated series project about space development, called Lunatics as well helping out with the Morevna Project.