Why Microsoft should not lose (and free software will still win)

Why Microsoft should not lose (and free software will still win)

There has always been a section of the free software community which has an anti-Microsoft agenda. It's almost like their mission statement is "It's not over until Microsoft is dead". Certainly there is a lot of feeling that if Microsoft went away, a lot of our problem would be over. But do Microsoft even need to "lose"; is there even a battle to be fought and if so what would constitute winning it?

Easy target

Let's face it Microsoft are an easy target when it comes to protesting against proprietary licencing. They are--after all--the largest and most obvious proponent of that particular form of consumer control. It's all too easy to view the fight to bring free software into the mainstream as a David and Goliath type battle, but I don't think it is. I don't think that the death of Microsoft would necessarily be a good thing for free software. I do think the death of some of their practices would be a good thing for computer users but--perhaps I am being optimistic here--I think free software can ultimately be good for companies like Microsoft.

What do I mean by "good"? Well I certainly don't mean it would allow them to continue as they are. I don't think Microsoft and their like can sustain their grip on a consumer market place which is demanding more and more ethical thinking from their suppliers. I can only speak from my own experience in the UK but I see a definite trend where the consumers are creating and responding to demands for ethics in their purchases. To counter this, I should say there has always been a growing trend with consumers to save money as well but I don't see free software licencing being a hindrance to that particular need. In fact it could drive it. Software companies saving on development costs can pass some of them onto customers.

As computers become ever more a consumer product, Microsoft are going to have to change a lot of their ways to survive. In fact I would go so far as to say they will probably have to change so much they would no longer be recognisable as the Microsoft we see today. Don't believe me? Look at IBM. Not long ago they were the corporate big guns, they were the ones that everybody watched first. Now they don't resemble the blue-suited corporation of the past. True, a lot of that might be marketing, but IBM have won hearts and minds by embracing free software.

Why Microsoft should not lose

Perhaps I am being a little confusing with the title there. I don't mean why Microsoft must not lose, I mean why they probably won't have to. Microsoft are a big player in the software world. I very much doubt they will disappear for good and it will be a waste of effort if we concentrated on trying to bring that about. Microsoft have survived a lot of things and they have picked up a lot of smart people along the way. True, some of those smart people have made some bad decisions, but hey, it shows they're human. It's soon going to be time for them to make some brave decisions or--they could lose a lot. There will always be a lot of people who will use Microsoft products and--although there are some better ones available--that is their choice. Many of them don't care if it's proprietary licenced, just like many of the people who buy instant coffee in the UK don't care if it's fairly traded. There is however a growing number of consumers who do care about their instant coffee, so many in fact that even the biggest producer, Nestlé (a company with almost as bad a reputation as MS) have brought out their own fairtrade instant. The market is changing due to consumer pressure and--in order to ensure survival--Nestlé have adapted; it's a small change but it's a start. Mark my words, the software market is changing and eventually companies like Microsoft will have to adapt in order to not lose out.


So what changes will they have to make? I believe they will eventually have to seriously consider freeing some of their products. I don't think they'll do it with Windows but certainly one of the larger ones will need to be freed. I don't think they'll do it straight away, I think they'll do what big corporations always do. First they'll try and change the way the market thinks so that they themselves don't have to change. They've been doing this for a while with things like the "get the facts" campaign. Once that starts to prove ineffective, they'll try to subvert the market in other ways--cue the OOXML/ISO fiasco. Once that fails, they'll try to pretend to support free software, they'll probably bring out something like "open licencing" or "freedom licencing", which will be close to free software but will omit one of the four freedoms in some way ( probably freedom 0 ). Once that fails they'll release a fairly worthless product as free software or they'll dual licence a product and the free one will be three versions behind the proprietary one. Finally they will capitulate and will release something like IE as free software. It will fly off the servers and there will be a lot of criticism from this side of the fence.

At this point free software will work for them. They'll get feedback, proper bug reports and a community which will work with them. If they do it properly. If they really do free their code, if they stop trying to generate revenue from something they did in the past. If they decide to treat the community that is here as partners in producing better software. If they do all those things--it just might work, they won't have to die and they could survive. How? By selling services, by offering proper support. By freeing their customers they may just find more of them stick around. So Microsoft--if you are listening--wake up! Things are changing and you could do yourselves a big favour by skipping some of the steps above and looking at how free software licences can help you and your customers.

Am I dreaming?

So am I in cloud-cuckoo land here? Do I really think Microsoft will make a significant free software release? Do you think they can, do you think they will? What would you do if it did happen? Ask yourself what is the ultimate aim of free software advocacy: to destroy proprietary software companies or to see _all _software free?

I would love to say that the what I've outlined above will happen--I'm in an optimistic mood today. However I can only say that it might happen, it could happen and it probably should happen. In order for it to actually happen it requires a transformation of Microsoft--and others like them--into something they are not even close to right now. Will that happen? I hope so.



Paul Gaskin's picture

Microsoft executives have a great deal of money and ego at stake in this battle.

Yes, they're losing the battle in which copyright law is primary, but they're making advances in a new battle in which patent law is the primary weapon.

I believe software should not be subject to patent law and I want to see Microsoft torn asunder.

The fight is not over until Microsoft is in tatters and they've lost their monopoly position.

We deserve the satisfaction of seeing Microsoft fall to pieces. I want the total ego gratification which can come from their total ego collapse. Also, I want some of that money they're hoarding!

Terry Hancock's picture

"We deserve the satisfaction of seeing Microsoft fall to pieces. I want the total ego gratification which can come from their total ego collapse. Also, I want some of that money they're hoarding!"

So much for the moral high ground.

Paul Gaskin's picture

They're the ones pushing software patents and striving for world domination. They're the ones with incredibly large yachts. Paul Allen has a 416 foot yacht with a built in submarine. Larry Ellison (Oracle CEO) has a 453 foot yacht with a built in submarine. (Larry felt the need to make his longer than Paul Allen's yacht).



I identify with values of social responsibility and solidarity.

Microsoft's executives identify with values of social domination and voluntary charity.

I'd like to change the circumstances which reinforce their anti-social identities and cause an identity crisis within them, so they can change. It would be liberating for their egos to collapse.

Myself, I would enjoy the ego-gratifying experience of changing society for the better.

Anyway, our contrary social vision, money and ego-gratification - those are the stakes for most people, whether we acknowledge them explicitly or not.

Is that so terrible to want some money or the ego-gratification of defeating a powerful opposition group? Have I really lost the moral high-ground?

Terry Hancock's picture

You've allowed the meanness of Microsoft to bring you down, yes. I'm not saying you're lower than Microsoft, but that isn't saying much.

I so hate repeating this cliche, but it is still true: two wrongs don't make a right. Vengence is never a good motivation, not so much because your enemy doesn't deserve it, as because it is bad for you.

We're trying to build something here, not tear down Microsoft, and if we reduce our role to competitor with Microsoft, we are really selling ourselves short.

Don't play their game by defining yourself as their enemy. Microsoft management sees "Linux" as a rival, but they are deluding themselves. We are not so small, nor so limited as Microsoft is -- it's a false rivalry. To free software, surpassing Microsoft is only a milestone (even if it is an important one).

Also, on a more human level, are you sure you want to be the kind of person who needs another person's suffering to pump up your own ego? I know I don't.

Ultimately, delight in their destruction is only the reflection of terror in their success. If you really have confidence in what you say you believe (free software is a better system / proprietary software will not persist), you should have nothing to fear, and thus nothing to hate.

Paul Gaskin's picture

They are very appropriate for those who hold revenge above the general good of society. They are appropriate for those who are reactionary and who lack constructive vision.

I'm not trying to avoid confrontation nor to give the impression that my motivation is selfless. I don't want to be mistaken for the type who wants to sacrifice and gain nothing.

I want some of that incredible revenue which proprietary software vendors are currently enjoying.

I don't mind gaining at their expense, nor do I intend to have a solemn attitude about their loss, because they are so damned gratuitous themselves.

I think it's time for some new entrepreneurs to prove that we too can enjoy prosperity but without being anti-social and throwing chairs.

I won't pretend that I'm not amused by the wailing and gnashing of teeth of those who've been behaving so boorishly and anti-socially for so many years.

I see no reason to make their transition to free software an easy one because they're only investing in free software out of a desire to subvert the common good with software patent claims.

Microsoft is still trying to colonize, divide and conquer and we would be foolish to let our guard down or to end our struggle before we've reached a decisive finish.

Lastly, I don't aspire to be without an ego. There is the idea of a balance between having too much and not enough ego. This idea has its basis in Freudian psychology.

cwwitt's picture
Submitted by cwwitt on

I totally agree with the sentiments of this article. Microsoft will absorb the open source way of doing business, - or they will become more and more irrelevant. Open source is superior for any business that embraces it. Those that refuse to embrace it become more and more irrelevant because they simply can't compete against open source as long as people are free to choose. The only way Microsoft will continue to dominate with their current business practices is if freedom is turned backward. If freedom in software continues on its present course, open source software will dominate.

Charles Witt - San Antonio, Texas USA

Slave8Tom's picture
Submitted by Slave8Tom on

"if they stop trying to generate revenue from something they did in the past"

Well said. I've never thought of the open vs closed software in those terms before, but I think you are precisely correct. The closed source model is a software philosophy that needs to be protected and hidden from view to prosper. This has generally happened for the last decade as typical Windows users passively accept more and more restriction on how they use their data on their own computers. Microsoft may have hit a tipping point with the release of Vista with its mandated DRM. On the other hand, open source, and Linux in particular, greatly benefits from sharing their code to reach a critical mass of users. I just can't see how the Microsoft model is sustainable in the long run.

David BL's picture
Submitted by David BL on

I would like to be as optimistic as you but to me their strategy is crystal-clear: think Microsoft will do anything neccesary to kill the very concept of Free(dom) Software (as of the GNU/GPL and the FSF), while at the same time they will try to taxate on everything open-source through software patents agreements (mind Novell), while at the same time striving to re-define the rules of "openness", of course they will take away the re-distribution ability insisting on their "end-user" thing and "non-transferable" licensing thing.

Also here you have a classic excerpt from Eric Raymond in which it explains why Microsoft won't ever change. So ultimately it will be their model or Free Software, unless you admit them corrupting the very concept of software freedom and rennouncing the 4 liberties for quick easy cash (what Novell did), you can't have it both ways and they cannot co-exist with competition, they have to predate to survive:

Source: http://esr.ibiblio.org/index.php?p=208
" I had my serious, constructive converstation with Microsoft last year, when a midlevel exec named Steven Walli took me out to dinner at OSCON 2004 and asked, in so many words, “How can we not be evil?” And I told him — open up your file formats (including Word and multimedia), support open technical standards instead of sabotaging them, license your patents under royalty-free, paperwork-free terms.

I believe Steve Walli went back to his bosses and told them that truth. He is no longer with Microsoft, and what little he’ll say about it hints that they canned him for trying to change their culture.

This didn’t surprise me. Microsoft’s profit margins require a monopoly lock on the market; thus, they’re stuck with being predatory evil bastards. The moment they stop being predatory evil bastards, their stock price will tank and their options pyramid will crash and it will be all over.

That being the case, negotiation is pointless. Microsoft is not reformable. Jeering at offers like this is actually the most constructive thing we can do."

So much for the allegued "openness" and "open source friendliness" of Microsoft: There is no such thing. Just look at what Bill G.(still the brain behind the scenes) told the press yesterday:
They want to open the breach inside the FOSS community separating tame just-business-friendly patent-friendly open-source from free(dom) software and marginalise(and eventually kill) the GPL and the FSF.
He goes as far as downplaying the benefits of open
source software in medical science projects (better leave it to Gates' charity)
Notice they keep insisting on software patentability and that no matter if it is open source they want to make you pay for software (and Novell is helping them in pursuing this strategy).


" One thing Gates won’t be leaving behind in
retirement is his distaste for open source software.
After one scientist asked if Gates would consider open
source uses in health research, the man who built his
$280 billion company on the power of intellectual
property bristled.

“There’s free software and then there’s open
source,” he suggested, noting that Microsoft gives
away its software in developing countries. With open
source software, on the other hand, “there is this
thing called the GPL, which we disagree with.”

Open source, he said, creates a license “so that
nobody can ever improve the software,” he claimed,
bemoaning the squandered opportunity for jobs and
business. (Yes, Linux fans, we’re aware of how
distorted this definition is.) He went back to the
analogy of pharmaceuticals: “I think if you invent
drugs, you should be able to charge for them,” he
said, adding with a shrug: “That may seem radical.”

it’s very revealing that Microsoft tries to separate Free software (it tries to characterise it as gratis,i.e. zero cost, cheap, shoddy) from open source. Open source is, to Microsoft, mainly about visibility, but it wants it to be subjected to the same rules, including software patents. Where are those geniuses who defended Microsoft’s seemingly-friendly approach towards the OSI?

Paul Gaskin's picture

Especially when you quoted Bill Gates on pharmaceutical drugs.

I don't mean to diminish Bill Gates large contributions to the well-being of Africans, yet I have to wonder - how much of his charity money is spent on drugs for AIDS and Malaria which have an arbitrarily set price?

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gives billions to African charities. Obviously, a large percentage of that money is spent on drugs with an arbitrary price.

That money ends up adding to the high profit margins of pharmaceutical companies. They spend it on some of the same lobbyists in Washington and the WTO who lobby on behalf of "intellectual property" protection which benefits companies like Microsoft in the end.

I'm not saying Bill Gates doesn't have an honest humanitarian impulse. I believe he does. I simply disagree this idea that he can be the benevolent ruler of the software world. Things will be better after Microsoft has been down-sized.

I agree with Brazil who chooses to manufacture anti-HIV drugs generically and without respect for the patent claims of the drug giants. For many people these arguments about so-called "intellectual property" will determine whether or not they survive.

Author information

Ryan Cartwright's picture


Ryan Cartwright heads up Equitas IT Solutions who offer fair, quality and free software based solutions to the voluntary and community (non-profit) and SME sectors in the UK. He is a long-term free software user, developer and advocate. You can find him on Twitter and Identi.ca.