LINUX BLOG SAFARI

Conspiracy Theories and the ‘Smoking Gun’

Linux bloggers are never shy about laying blame at Microsoft’s door, but in recent days the accusations seemed to be flying faster than ever.

First, Groklaw published a post entitled, “Linux on Netbooks: The Smoking Gun.”

Referring to a post from earlier this month by ZDNet’s Dana Blankenhorn, Groklaw zeroed in on comments made by Li Chang, vice president of the Taipei Computer Association, in response to a query at Computex about “where the Linux went,” as Blankenhorn put it.

“In our association we operate as a consortium, like the open source consortium,” Chang reportedly said. “They want to promote open source and Linux. But if you begin from the PC you are afraid of Microsoft. They try to go to the smart phone or PDA to start again.”

‘Mystery Solved’

Groklaw’s reaction: “Mystery solved. Totally blatant… next time you hear Microsoft bragging that people *prefer* their software to Linux on netbooks, you’ll know better. If they really believed that, they’d let the market speak, on a level playing field.”

So that was the smoking gun, and by Friday it had drawn more than 460 comments on Groklaw and 170 on ZDNet. It drew 400 on Slashdot, where the debate was taken up soon thereafter.

“Microsoft continues their predatory ways,” lamented Anonymous in the Groklaw comments. “I often wonder if the rumored cooperation between MS and NSA is a factor.”

On the other hand: “This leaves a huge opportunity for a maverick entrepreneur,” wrote PolR. “If you are willing to sell low cost linux devices, you are guaranteed an exclusive access to the Linux market for quite a while since Microsoft won’t let anyone else get into this market but other entrepreneurs using the same strategy as you.”

‘I Don’t Buy It’

Another blogger argued that Groklaw had misinterpreted Chang’s words.

“To me, Mr. Chang’s quote could be paraphrased as, ‘We are a hardware consortium, just like the Open Source Consortium. They [the OSC] want to promote Open Source and Linux. But when you [again, the OSC] attempt to start that promotion on the PC, you have to contend with Windows, which is scary. So they [once again, OSC] avoid the PC platform for now, and try start with PDAs and smartphones, where Windows isn’t so much of a threat’,” Anonymous asserted.

“In other words, he is not saying the hardware manufacturers refrain from bringing GNU/Linux netbooks to market because they are scared of Microsoft, but rather putting the guilt on OSC’s hands,” Anonymous added. “Under this interpretation, the reason for the absence on GNU/Linux on netbooks would be that OSC chooses not to compete in that arena, but rather on the smartphone and PDA.”

Of course, “I don’t buy it,” Anonymous added. “It would surprise me very much if OSC were chicken to confront Windows in the netbook market. I am afraid that Mr. Chang may have just been doing a pretty good job of weaseling out of an uncomfortable question, but I don’t think this quote is anywhere near a smoking gun…”

‘Completely Untrue’

Fuel was only added to the fire, of course, when a post on the “Linux and Free software” blog asserted that 90 percent of the world’s desktop computers are controlled by Microsoft.

“Completely untrue” was tuxchick’s assessment on LXer, for example, and the protests proceeded from there.

Perhaps most intriguing of all, however, was Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols’ recent assertion that Linux stories getdeliberately buried on Digg.

“I became aware of this because in the last few weeks I’ve had several stories that were pro-Linux and anti-Microsoft,” Vaughan-Nichols wrote. After becoming popular on Digg, the stories had been buried — effectively removed — an hour later,” he charged.

‘Buries Should Be Exposed’

“Digg admits that groups of users — say, Microsoft employees, partners, and supporters — can ‘abusively bury content’,” he wrote. “I’d add, not just ‘can’, but ‘do.'”

Besides making this LinuxInsider reporter feel a whole lot better about her own Linux stories (so *that’s* what keeps happening!), the notion also drew 90 comments on Vaughan-Nichols’ blog and was picked up on LWN andon Digg itself, where bloggers were quick to respond.

“Let’s bury this one too [grin],” quipped antdude.

On the other hand: “I thoroughly agree that Buries should be exposed just as Diggs are,” wrote Carpy. “Why is one public & the other private? Makes no sense.”

‘Asus Was Bought Out’

So what’s actually going on here? Does it all add up to so much paranoia, or is there something to these conspiracy charges? The enquiring minds at LinuxInsider want to know.

“M$ has a long history of no-holds-barred ‘Technology Evangelism’,” blogger Robert Pogson told LinuxInsider. “M$ trained people how to infiltrate/buy-out/co-opt people to spread the word that competitive platforms were junk. This has been pretty well demonstrated in the news media, blogs, conferences and the web — one need look no further than Desktoplinux.com forums or Digg to see that this is so.”

The much-discussed ‘apology’ by Asus for “the showing of a netbook with SnapDragon CPU is proof enough that Asus was bought out by M$,” Pogson asserted. “There is never a business case for apologizing for innovation.”

Microsoft can buy out or intimidate “the big guys” because “they have a lot to lose if they lose the blessing of M$,” he added. “But, with ARM and the netbook, there are 10 little guys waiting in the wings for the business the big guys pass up.”

‘The Penalties Would Be Huge’

Chang’s response at Computex doesn’t yet constitute a smoking gun, “but it sure is a signal to the antitrust authorities in several jurisdictions that they need to take a closer look,” Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told LinuxInsider. “If this is true, it will make everything the EU has investigated to date seem like an act of sainthood in comparison. If this is ever proven, I expect the penalties for Microsoft would be huge.”

On the other hand: “It’s not a conspiracy when there are no partners,” Slashdot blogger drinkypoo opined. “These companies aren’t Microsoft’s partners; that would imply a two-way street. In actuality, there is no complicity; Microsoft is exerting the same control over OEMs that they did regarding forcing them to bundle IE.”

The results of that have already been seen — “the EU is going after them for fines every other Thursday, while the US DOJ gave them a free pass (thanks, Ashcroft!),” drinkypoo told LinuxInsider. “I suspect that in five or 10 years, it will come out that Microsoft forced OEMs to neglect Linux, and nothing at all will happen to them because of it.”

Regarding Digg, “You don’t need a conspiracy to bury anything on Digg,” drinkypoo charged. “Just allow the users to comment, and they will bury the story in nonsense themselves. I used to think Slashdot was bad like that, then I checked out Digg. Just wow.”

‘Sorry, Linux Guys’

At least one blogger felt that conspiracy has nothing to do with it.

“There is actually a simple reason why OEMs aren’t supporting and selling Linux — it is the same reason I don’t,” Slashdot blogger hairyfeet told LinuxInsider. “It is because it costs too much money compared to MSFT.

“I’m sorry, Linux guys, but your OS is not ready for the home consumer,” hairyfeet charged. “If you want proof, just go to Wal-Mart or Best Buy or Staples.com and see how many items there have Linux support. If you don’t research, the odds are zero that you will get full functionality in Linux, if anything works at all.”

In other words? “No contest,” hairyfeet said.

‘The Movement Is Too Large’

Not everyone, however, is quite so sure.

“Unfortunately for M$, the strategy that worked so well against Netscape, OS/2 and other commercial technologies cannot succeed against GNU/Linux and Free Software,” Pogson said. “The movement is too large, too diverse and is not dependent on just a few supply lines.

“M$ can delay ascendance of GNU/Linux, which does bring in more money,” he added. “But that is the best they can do.”

3 Comments

  • will be better accepted by consumers. Unlike many IT folks, the OS is viewed as a tool and not a religion by most consumers who care little about the flavor as long as it doesn’t get in the way. Having Linux running Tivos wasn’t exactly a death blow for the product.

    I personally drop my opinion a few levels of the quality of the information when I see a $ substituted for the letter S or cute sigs with "just say no" and a big red circle with a line super imposed over the Windows graphic.

    Some of the choices made on Distros on the early Netbooks were terrible. gOS was horrible if the only previous experience was Windows.

    These conspiracy theories are a bit much. It’s gotten so you can’t carry on a conversation in some places in cyberspace without some fanatic calling me a shill or being asked how much M$ is paying me. It’s gotten worse since Microsoft dropped the FUD "Get the Facts" website, stopped publicly threatening to sue companies using Linux for IP violations and buying up chunks of Linux related businesses.

    People who shop Walmart and Best Buy are used to Windows, the people who work there know nothing about Linux. It isn’t that complicated.

  • Microsoft has 3 main tactics to keep OEMs from promoting Linux. In short, fraud, extortion, and sabotage.

    Fraud

    Microsoft uses copyright licenses and trademark licenses to mandate that any benchmark or advertisement that uses the Microsoft owned trademarks receive Microsoft’s prior written approval before it can be published.

    Microsoft considers ANY direct comparison between Linux and Windows to be a "benchmark" and therefore subject to these restrictions.

    Trademarks

    The control of trademarks is not new, Disney sought to control their trademarks when a T-Shirt company started marketing T-shirts with Micky Mouse, Goofy, Donald Duck smoking a hooka and getting very stoned. Disney claimed that this "damaged the brand" and the court found in Disney’s favor.

    Microsoft defends it’s control of brand as their only way to prevent people from advertising the ability to get kiddie porn or illegal media piracy. That’s their argument in court, before Judge Kollar-Kotelly, when the issue was raised, but in practice, Microsoft considers ANY association with Linux to be "damaging to the brand".

    Prior Written Consent

    As a result, OEMs must get prior written permission from Microsoft before publishing any content which includes both the Microsoft owned trademarks and logos and the Linux or Open Source trademarks and Logos. Most ad content can be approved in a matter of hours, but content involving Linux gets delayed and if approval is received at all, it is usually AFTER the deadline for ad copy for that publication.

    De-Jure vs De-Facto Tactics

    Since Microsoft doesn’t explicitly say "you can’t mention Linux in Microsoft ads", or "the benchmark has to show Microsoft as the winner against Linux or you can’t publish", there isn’t a clear "de-jure" case for market manipulation. On the other hand, the policy of delays or rejections on the basis of minor technicalities, or demands that a rewrite based on Microsoft’s "support" and "revisions" be published instead of the original unvarnished bennchmark, probably do constitute "de-facto" manipulation.

    Vaporware Fraud

    Such control of exposure to competitor information would be a form of fraud. Another form, which has been an issue in the past, is Micrososft’s repeated use of vapor-ware, promising features that don’t quite make it to the marketplace, to keep people from buying Macs, OS/2, Solaris, or LInux.

    When Windows NT was first announced in 1992, Bill Gates announced that it would be "A better UNIX than UNIX", promising all of the features of SunOS 4.0. It wasn’t until Windows 2000 that Windows even came close, and even then, Windows did not have the security features of even SunOS 4.0, let alone Solaris 8 or Linux.

    When XP sales failed to impress corporate IT managers, many corporations started planning a strategy to migrate to Linux if Microsoft tried to force-feed a new version of Windows or price increases, into the market. Microsoft countered by promising Longhorn, which would have all these wonderful features of Linux and Mac OS/X. Gradually, features were dropped until Longhorn looked more like a steer. They changed the name to Vista, but most of Vista was a mirage. Advertized features didn’t work on most PCs, especially PCs that were "Linux Ready". The only problem was that corporate buyers weren’t buying any machines that weren’t "Linux Ready" because of that mandate for a Migration strategy. As a result, prices for "Vista only" systems dropped very rapidly, often forcing retailers and OEMs to sell machines below cost. CompUSA, Circuit City, and Gateway were bleeding so much red ink that Gateway was on the verge of being delisted before ACER bought it, and CompUSA closed nearly all of it’s retail stores, and Circuit City just went bankrupt.

    Extortion

    Extortion came in the form of Microsoft’s threats to revoke the OEM’s rights to sell ANY Windows or Vista systems. There are so many clauses in the Microsoft licenses that have double meanings that it is easy to violate the terms of the licenses without knowing it. This means that Microsoft can use these technicalities to revoke ALL of the licenses as they did when Compaq tried to put the Netscape Icon where the IE icon used to be and moved the IE icon to the back of the menu system. The OEM agreement required that any modification of the boot sequence be approved by Microsoft, in writing, prior to such changes being shipped in production machines. Microsoft used that "loaded gun" to revoke all licenses to one of the company’s most popular lines.

    Did Microsoft threaten to retaliatory actions against Acer, ASUS, and MSI if they didn’t stop promoting Linux? ASUS and MSI were leaders in the motherboard market, but Microsoft may have threatened to revoke licenses to all HP, Lenovo, and Acer machines made with the ASUS and MSI motherboards unless they stopped promoting Linux. That’s speculation, but it’s a plausible scenario, and would certainly explain why ASUS whose EEE 4G was selling 60% Linux and 40% Windows, was suddenly not asking retailers to display and demonstrate the Linux version.

    Blocking Retail access to Linux

    Microsoft may have also used trademark control to stop the retailers from putting the Linux systems on display. I was told by one retailer that they weren’t allowed to turn on the Linux version because if they displayed it, they would lose their Microsoft Authorized retailer status, and would have to turn off ALL of their Windows machines. Carfour, a huge department store chain with stores in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, decided to turn off ALL of their computers, and continued to offer Linux and "NoOS" machines that could be configured with Linux by buying a magazine in a different part of the store. The Linux machines were 50-70% cheaper than the Vista machines because they didn’t need as much RAM, storage, or CPU to be fully effective.

    Sabotage

    The sabotage was another kettle of fish. Since the release of Windows 95, over a decade ago, Microsoft has tried to block Linux, reformatting the hard drive, removing existing software and data, and creating a single huge partition. OEMs are also required to configure the machine with a huge single partition – even though this configuration is much harder to back-up and recover.

    Vista tried to prevent the use of Linux as a virtual machine running on Vista by treating it as a "virus" – refusing to install it because it didn’t have the proper authorization code. The early Vista "Home Premium" licenses expressly forbid running Vista as a VM client of Linux. It was only when sales fell way below expectations that OEMs pressured Microsoft to permit the use of Vista in VM Images. Furthermore, HP and Dell, insisted on the right to offer installation media as well as downgrade media so that buyers who wanted to run Linux could reinstall either XP or Vista as a virtual machine.

    "Linux Ready" sells PCs

    Ironically, about 95% of the machines sold with Vista these days are also "Linux Ready", and can be quickly and easily configured to run Linux. Because the machines are purchased with an OEM Vista license, PC owners can legally run Vista or XP "appliances" as Linux "clients". One of the advantages is that XP performance is improved due to improved disk and network I/O buffering, and Linux works as a nice fire-wall and improves the security of XP.

    Herding cats and counting rats

    Nobody really knows how many Linux desktops there are out there. We know that there are hundreds of millions of Linux and Unix "Appliances" out there powering everything from WiFi hubs and routers to DVRs, Cable boxes, cable modems, and even your HDTVs and Digital TV converter boxes.

    Linux boxes are hard to count, because often they are shared on a network with regular Windows PCs, or Windows VMs. It’s easy for a counter such as Netstat to get confused. Many Linux desktops are behind corporate firewalls shared with Windows desktops, again confusing the counters. Many are used for customer service, cash registers, or point of service terminals such as teller "terminals" so they would never be seen by these counters.

    What’s remarkable about Linux isn’t that it’s grown so much, but that it’s grown IN SPITE of Microsoft’s $billions in advertizing, legal, and contract tactics being used to try and stop it.

    Microsoft has spent an average of $4 billion/year in advertising Co-op since 1994, trying to keep Linux and Unix off the desktops. They have been spending over $2 billion/year in legal fees and settlements to keep Linux and Unix off the desktops.

    Yet Linux, with very small budgets, has managed to grow to a $32 billion/year industry, including servers, desktops, appliances, consulting, and support. Even this is hard to measure and may be a very conservative estimate.

    Yet Linux thrives

    Microsoft relies on fraud, extortion, blackmail, sabotage, and obstruction of justice (using court seals to prevent evidence from being used in subsequent lawsuits or criminal investigations).

    Linux has to rely mostly on word of mouth, positive experiences of those who try, and informal networks of "advocates" who publish the benefits of Linux on web sites, blogs, and discussion groups. This "viral marketing" is only effective because once people try Linux on the desktop, they are impressed with it’s ease of use, smooth performance, and reliability.

    At the same time, they are acutely aware that they still need Windows. As a result, even very enthusiastic Linux users usually purchase PCs that have Windows or Vista OEM licenses included. This allows them to LEGALLY run Windows XP concurrently with Linux, using desktop virtualization.

    Co-existence may be the key

    Ironically, it may be that the willingness of Linux to "play nice" with newer versions of Windows is what’s keeping Microsoft alive in the marketplace. I suspect that if Microsoft were too successful in keeping Linux off a specific OEM’s desktop and laptop hardware, that OEM would be bankrupt very quickly. Gateway may be a good example of this.

  • Hairyfeet should wake up. It is not 1997 any longer.

    I buy a lot of PCs and parts. I would have a hard time finding anything that does not work with GNU/Linux but I do not buy USB-powered toothbrushes with DRM/encryption/M$-only client.

    If some retailers wish to cater to the M$-centric world they can do so but they are beginning to lose market share. According to M$’s CEO, GNU/Linux has about 7% of the market and it is growing quickly. No business wants a 7% cut. OEMs and retailers will support GNU/Linux sooner or later. M$ and their buddies cannot kill the netbook and they cannot kill GNU/Linux. They have been trying for years.

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