On Ballmer's UNIX/Linux quote

On Ballmer's UNIX/Linux quote

As covered by ZDNet and discussed at Slashdot Steve Ballmer said during a question/answer session at a Gartner Symposium in Orlando FL the lines...

“The day I come in front of the Gartner audience and say we have a better Unix than Linux, that’ll be a good day”

This was said in answer to a “How do you intend to compete with the free software markets?” type question, which only made up a tiny part of the Q&A session. However, my weird thinking methodology got me pondering some ramifications...

What if Microsoft did come up with a full POSIX compliant operating system? How would they do it? And what would it mean?

Should they do so, then all the technical advantages of GNU/Linux are irrelevant. Anything that runs on GNU/Linux userland could simply be recompiled on this ... lets call it MS-Unix ... platform and away you go. On top of that Microsoft could port some of their proprietary stuff to it, making an interesting beast already.

Furthermore, rather than doing the SFU (Services for Unix) for Windows, they could do a SFW—Services for Windows—for MS-Unix. This would be on a similar vein to Wine, as SFU is a similar vein to Cygwin. Another thing they could do is to use virtualization technology to run a more traditional Windows session inside their MS-Unix. Or even enable this to happen the other way around. Technology already exists for this in the free world as well as proprietary as in the form of CoLinux for POSIX-in-Windows and Bochs and QEMU for Windows-in-POSIX. It shouldn’t be too difficult for MS to optimize it for their own technology.

Ok—I am dreaming now—but I will continue. If this happened it would be a big win for Microsoft, and a big win for end users. My feeling is that people are suspicious of MS because of their proprietary nature, and they mistrust them as far as standards are concerned. Ballmer at the symposium did say he supported web open standards to facilitate web services therein. I don’t know if anyone there actually believed him, but I didn’t, and I don’t know anyone who does. However, embracing POSIX is one way to take care of such concerns. That would, if nothing else, send a message that Microsoft could facilitate migration if required.

Microsoft have a big lead in the marketplace. This lead is relevant and worrying to people who rely on IT infrastructure. It means MS can have a stranglehold on your business and there is nothing you can do about it. GNU/Linux is a means of competing with this, and is gaining ground. As is OpenOffice.org with the OpenDocument card. My feelings are, given the current situation, that eventually corporates would need to see that Microsoft can never be indespensible to them, in other words the Microsoft lead needs to be seen as irrelevant. The alternative is the corporates will seek alternatives thus making Microsoft solutions irrelevant. Embracing standards as POSIX—and others like OpenDocument for that matter—would be a great way of Microsoft demonstrating vendor independance as far as they are concerned, thus making the lead irrelevant, thus, somewhat ironically, maintaining it.

However, I don’t think that any of the above will happen. For a start, Microsoft has a long way to go before they get near Linux in producing Linux’s versatility and functionality. I believe the Unix/Linux quote was a throw-away remark. Other sections of the Q&A session suggested that they are going to continue to lock down the protocols and lock out everyone else. He talked of better Web real-time experiences but not of X-Forms (where everyone else is going). He talked of IE7 but nothing about including better W3C compliance. I think he was only paying lip-service to standards and has every intention of using MS’s market lead to lock as many other people out as possible, as soon as he could get away with it. This is a pity. I think it is a missed opportunity for Microsoft, and it is holding the IT industry back, as far as the computer users of the world are concerned.



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Submitted by admin on

Comment from Terry Hancock [Member] · http://www.anansispaceworks.com

2005-10-21 @ 21:30
The obvious way to achieve this would be to do what Apple did, and create a Unix rooted in Free BSD or another BSD-licensed variant. Then they could create a proprietary Unix.

Presumeably, they would then have to fuss over "embracing and extending" Posix, in order to continue their characteristic marketing strategies.

It would, of course, fail to compete effectively with Linux, because there's no way they could afford to pay for all the testers and debuggers to compete with the entire population of free software users.

But, just as MacOS X has done, it would make it easier for free software applications to run on the commercial platform. This would bring competition right on to the consumer desktop, though, which would be a really uncomfortable thing for MS for the same reason (head-to-head competition with free software development efforts ).

Microsoft's lead in the consumer desktop market consists entirely of market inertia: people continue to use Microsoft Windows because "everyone else is using it" and they want to be able to share with those people. Remaining incompatible with other standards is one way to strengthen that hold.

Of course, inertia can't last forever, and people are slowly leaking to the free software side, so that increasingly, "everyone else is using it" is an argument for standardized, free software solutions, instead of against (anything "web-based" being the leading edge).

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Edward Macnaghten has been a professional programmer, analyst and consultant for in excess of 20 years. His experiences include manufacturing commercially based software for a number of industries in a variety of different technical environments in Europe, Asia and the USA. He is currently running an IT consultancy specialising in free software solutions based in Cambridge UK. He also maintains his own web site.