The Threat of Open Source on Monopoly Behavior

Check out this article. Or not. In fact, don’t. I don’t want to drive any traffic to that charlatan’s article. Instead, I’ll summarize. Microsoft has been positively influenced by the emergence of competitors. In the 1990s, we all hated Microsoft. Even their shiny new Windows 95 sucked. When they finally got around to releasing a modern OS, in the form of Windows NT, it was sorely missing most of the things needed to make an OS popularly successful. To boot, the attitude out of Redmond at the time was, “You have no choice but to buy what we’re selling. We’re better than you and smarter than you. What are you going to run? OS/2?” The author, Rob Enderle, whose veracity I will later furiously attack in this posting, anecdotally demonstrates quite sufficiently that Microsoft today was greatly improved by the threat from Netscape; further, the Linux threat of today is continuing to improve Microsoft.

I certainly cannot disagree with these statements. Indeed, I have said much the same thing in the past. In fact, I still see such positive changes occuring - despite the fact I haven’t been in the loop with Microsoft professionally for over a year now.

But lets read between the lines here. We’re going to extend the author’s own example to the present day. Microsoft was bad. Everybody hated their products, but had no choice but to use them. They dominated the market share. They leveraged their formidable market position into unfair business practices with their OEM partners. Later, the company would be charged with said crime, legally declared a monopoly by the courts, and get off with a slap on the wrist. The point is, they were bad. Then, along comes Netscape and the Internet. Microsoft realizes they missed the boat on one of the defining technologies of the new millenium. They come screeching to a halt, and do an amazing job of making a comeback. They put together a fantastic browser that embarasses Netscape in virtually every respect, and obliterate it from existence. Sure, the fact they can again leverage their market dominance into automatically installing their own product onto every single computer world works in their advantage, but the fact is that IE was way superior to Netscape.

And then nothing happened. Microsoft stopped working on their browser. For three years they let it sit. Software is like a dog. It ages faster than the rest of us. Three years to us is like fifteen years to dogs; its more like fifty years to software. Their browser was beset on all sides by various forms of malware, made possible by the stupid design of ActiveX. It had rendering problems, it didn’t follow the industry standards, the interface hadn’t changed significantly from the original Netscape release. There were JavaScript quirks, and table issues, and stupid caching problems galore. I say again, for three years! we lived like this. There was nothing better.

And then from the ashes of Netscape arose FireFox. It was a new browser, with new features and new toys. They fixed the gaping security design flaws. It had a neat plugin system. It had tabs, it was standards-compliant, it was better than IE. In fact, it embarassed IE in the same way the latter had previously done to Netscape. Microsoft must have had a relapse to their childhood, though, because they initially said, “IE is fine. We’re not updating it. And you don’t have a choice.” And then millions of people began to switch. Suddenly, IE7 is on the horizon!

Now let us again look at Mr. Enderle’s article. When you read between the lines, the first half of the article says, “Microsoft is a monopoly, and they only do the right thing when confronted by competition that challenges their monopoly.” Well said, Rob! You’ve just defined a monopoly! We’re all so proud.

Now you might be wondering why I have so much venom for Rob Enderle. After all, I’ve never met him before, nor have I read any of his prior work. Perhaps you should go read the article, specifically the last section, titled “False Threat?” On second thought, don’t. I’ll just quote my favorite line.

Finally, we know that what is largely holding the open-source community together is a dislike for Microsoft. As Microsoft improves, the reality of what Microsoft is will slowly penetrate the increasingly artificial reality that the open-source community has created and, much like it was with Apple, non-aligned buyers will avoid the related platforms and aligned buyers will change sides as their perceptions shift to the new reality.

Exactly how do you know this, Rob? Do you have some sort of crystal ball that sees into the head of Linus Torvalds and Alan Cox? Obviously, you don’t understand a thing about open source because you can’t see past the business. Those who contribute to open source projects are held together by their love of code, not by a hatred of Microsoft. Certainly the latter is akin to baseball as the community’s favorite passtime, but people don’t hack on a kernel or an IRC bot, or anything else, out of a seething hatred to get back at a corporation, no matter how big and evil of a monopoly they perceive it to be. Sure, there are some people out there making money on this stuff - heck, the code I’m writing is destined for public distribution - but the people who code open source do so because they enjoy it. It’s fun!

A strict businessman cannot see the return on investment of donating time and code to a community effort because he considers anything except money to be an invaluable return. A geek sees it as a chance to have some fun with some code. Open source will never die simply because I’ll never be able to hack at Windows and compile it myself - not because it’s profitable, but because it’s fun! Rob Enderle obviously doesn’t understand the power of that concept: As long as their are geeks, they will hack on open source projects, and those projects will continue to improve and provide competition for Microsoft.

And really, that’s a win for everybody. If there is any value at all to Mr. Enderle’s article, it’s what he implicitly says about a monopoly without competition - it’s a loss for everybody.