April 1999

What is this thing called Linux, and why should we care?

Is Linux a Windows-Killer, the Final Solution to the Microsoft Question, or just a great new programming platform?

What of Open Source? Is this the wave of the future, a flash in the pan, or just a good way of making software?

I will tell you right now what Linux is. Linux is Microsoft's "Escape Hatch."

That's absurd, you may be saying. Microsoft is scared silly of Linux, of Open Source, of anything that it does not own. But I know the truth about Microsoft and their plans. It's not pretty.

Oh, sure, a year ago Microsoft was spooked by Linux. For the last six months Microsoft executives have been in full FUD mode, spewing lies about the whole "alternatives" movement and Open Source in particular. But behind the scenes, Microsoft is making its moves right now to take over the Linux platform. They will do this by imitating the very methods they used to achieve control of the Windows platform. Remember, Windows is just DOS with a GUI shell and some APIs. Windows is a grand masquerade, a fake, a fraud, a deception. Windows is a glorified menu system with pictures instead of words, pretending to be an operating system. But the shaky foundation of Windows is just DOS. And right now, Linux of 1999 is DOS of 1989.

Remember when DOS was an "open" platform? Anybody could write a DOS app without too much hassle. You could talk directly to the hardware without the need for conforming to a prefab regime of memory management .DLLs, device drivers that shielded your code from the VGA card or the modem, and wacky APIs that contain hidden trapdoors. You just coded up your app and gave it your own "look and feel." Programs took resources as they needed them, and gave them back when they were done using them (if the programs were designed well!). But no one developer had a real, long-term advantage over the competition on the development side, not even Microsoft. Any Top 100 software sales chart of early 1990 will show Microsoft being soundly whipped by competitors who offered superior products, such as WordPerfect, Lotus, Borland, and Ashton-Tate.

Microsoft proceeded to erect a series of artificial programming barriers on top of the essentially "open" DOS platform by hiding these barriers under the surface of its "cool" Windows GUI. The average PC buyer had no idea that the purpose of Windows was to take control of the DOS platform, just as a Venus Flytrap stays open and inviting until a desireable morsel appears. The DOS platform attracted programmers in droves because it was popular, cheap, and relatively easy to program for, compared to other small computer systems. Windows was Microsoft's way of trapping those developers and consuming their intellectual assets. Ten years later, there is no sign of these formerly successful competitors on the sales charts; they have been bought and sold and merged and repositioned in a desperate attempt to stay afloat.

What damaged these software companies was not the Windows GUI itself, of course. What kept these competitors from prospering was the loss of cash flow from applications sales. That means that Microsoft's Office suite was and is the actual threat to anyone who wants to make good money selling applications on the Windows platform. First, it was just the word processor and spreadsheet vendors who got burned. Then it was graphics stalwarts like Harvard Graphics and Lotus Freelance that began disappearing from the scene. Later, the database was merged into Office Professional, and more recently the contact manager, e-mail, and other formerly separate apps have been bundled with MS Office in order to strangle the cash flow of even more software vendors. Microsoft even bundles Internet Explorer with Office, just in case you were thinking of using Netscape as your browser.

A recent article in the German magazine "c't" claims that Microsoft is porting Office2000 to the Linux platform. Why are they doing this? So they can retrace their steps of ten years ago. The DOS platform is still wide-open today, but the Windows APIs are what most developers use. Similarly, Linux will be wide-open ten years from now, but what hope of cash flow will there be for applications vendors who are just now recognizing the Linux opportunity? Microsoft will give Office away for free if it has to, just to prevent Corel, Lotus, and everyone else from turning Linux into a prosperous source of software revenue. (Naturally, the Office *source code* will not be available, just the apps.) This way, developers looking for a way to attack the Windows market will not be able to have a Linux cash-cow to fund their Windows development.

Sure, you'll use Office for Linux when Barbados freezes over, you may be saying. But you won't have a choice. Corporations who are fleeing the Windows platform for Linux will not want to "start over" on the applications side; they will be only too happy to "standardize" on Office for Linux, then force-feed it to their employees and demand that they use Office for Linux on the laptops and home PCs as well. Once this occurs, Microsoft will bundle Linux "extensions" as part of the Office for Linux bundle, which they will claim are exempt from GNU licensing since they are not part of the OS itself. Just like Windows APIs and DLLs are not part of DOS, right?

Since Microsoft's Windows systems will not be ready for Y2K, they will simply use Linux's Y2K-ready foundation as the "escape hatch" and shift their business development over to Linux. Business users of Microsoft products will have to shift as well, since Microsoft will not be willing to waste precious resources fixing their broken-down Windows operating systems. Once virtually every business has had to shift to Office on Linux, then Microsoft will be positioned to bundle IE for Linux and anything else they want to sell as part of the Office suite. Sooner or later, MS will have positioned Office as the "Linux API" and developers will have to code to whatever "standard" that the latest version of Office provides. Using Internet Explorer for Linux will become mandatory, too.

If Microsoft pulls this off, we will be sitting here ten years from now, as a new DOJ trial gets underway, asking how in the world government attorneys, Justice Department officials, pundits, and software "visionaries" let Microsoft off the hook in 1999 by ignoring the monopolistic leverage that Office gives Microsoft. It will be for the simple reason that most people are being fooled right now by Microsoft's acting job of pretending to still be afraid of Linux, and their propaganda that pretends to badmouth Linux when it is merely attempting to scare off competing applications developers from getting there first.

My recommendation is thus to stay the course and standardize on the only platform that Microsoft will never, ever develop for, the only platform that Microsoft can never afford to legitimize: IBM OS/2 Warp. Since Microsoft will never offer a public version of Office for OS/2 (because this would immediately legitimize the platform), software vendors need never worry about Big Brother squelching their revenue. And users need never worry about a mythical "IE for OS/2" ruining their Internet experience.

Most recent revision: April 28, 1999
Copyright © 1999, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.