How Linux Saved Microsoft

I’ve been looking back this week and recalling almost a decade ago when a little company called Netscape prematurely slapped Microsoft upside the head and by so doing better positioned Microsoft for the future. Granted, I’m sure Microsoft would have loved to avoid the related litigation that continues to this day, but were it not for Netscape, Microsoft would have missed the Internet badly and would have had some much tougher years than they did.

As I look at how Microsoft is changing to address the Linux threat, one that may actually turn out to be no more real than Netscape’s was, I can’t help but see how Microsoft has dramatically benefited from it — and much more broadly so than they did from the rise of Netscape.

Recalling Pre-Linux Microsoft

We so often get caught up in today’s events that we forget what it was like before. We take for granted improvements that have dramatically changed our lives. The same can be said for some of today’s problems, too. For instance, when I grew up we didn’t have heavy traffic — but now it just seems like an unavoidable fact of life.

In the ’90s we had Windows 9x products which had memory leaks (you couldn’t run them for much more than a day without crashing), hardware driver issues (graphics drivers in particular were a nightmare), and Microsoft was behaving badly.

The best example of bad behavior was their release of Windows NT for the desktop. Here was a product designed for workstations, real workstations, and servers. Priced at a premium for a market that would buy a premium product, suddenly Microsoft felt it was ready for the desktop. It wasn’t, and the desktop market sure as heck didn’t want to pay the premium, but there was no other choice and we had what amounted to a contained OS war with Microsoft on both sides. The Windows 9x side lost.

During that time Microsoft wasn’t particularly happy with me, as I was outspoken in saying that Windows NT wasn’t ready. Imaging products didn’t work with it, compatibility was bad (particularly with notebook computers) and, worst of all, virtually every deployment came in well over budget and well under expectations.

Right Time

It would be as if Ford, after putting all of the other car companies out of business, decided that everyone should stop driving pickups and start driving dump trucks. There was no competition; OS/2 (which was basically an earlier version of Windows NT anyway) was dead, Apple was clearly no longer a threat, and none of us were taking Linux seriously. It, like Plan 9 (an arguably better but more obscure OS), existed just for discussion between people who wanted to show off how geeky they were.

Towards the end of the decade Microsoft made a pricing adjustment that was supposed to address the biggest complaint of the time, pricing complexity, but the execution was so badly botched — largely because of the fear that Microsoft would lose money — that customers all but revolted.

Because of declining competition, Microsoft let its advocates nearly die out and they adopted a set of policies that, to me, felt much like IBM had a decade or so earlier which seemed based on the “we are selling air so you don’t have any choice” marketing and sales concept. Microsoft was on the bullet train to disaster, and Linux gave them a much needed kick in the rump.

Linux’s Positive Impact

Now look at Microsoft. They have adjusted prices downwards sharply in third world countries which, before this, couldn’t even afford Microsoft’s products. They have improved the quality of their products to a degree that many of us run Windows for weeks without crashing. The products are vastly more secure and are wrapped with an infrastructure of services that makes them much harder to penetrate and vastly more capable.

Patching is largely automatic, problems with hardware have all but been eliminated, and much of the development and break fix processes have been fully automated with testing that is magnitudes better than it was only four years ago. Microsoft is listening as well, as all you need to do is use Linux in a sentence and your Microsoft rep will remain glued to your side.

Microsoft is also going though a massive effort to, once again, capture the costs associated with their products and find ways to reduce these problems so that the products better compete with Linux. The company has gone so far as to hire large numbers of Linux programmers to implement policies and processes that have many of the advantages that Linux promises.

An example is its Shared Source Initiative which provides source code to an ever-increasing group of companies that feel they need to look at source, something that Microsoft would never have even considered a few years earlier.

Virtually none of this would have happened had it not been for Linux, and had it not, we would have seen a different version of Longhorn (the next version of Microsoft Windows) than we will now see, and we probably would have liked it vastly less as a result. Microsoft is even aggressively working on its culture, which has been the core to Microsoft’s appearance of untrustworthiness and arrogance. Those of us who watch the company have seen dramatic improvements over the last 12 months in Microsoft’s general behavior as a result.

I’d like to ask the Microsoft folks to stop reading here, and to remember that if you don’t continue to make the changes you are making, Microsoft will fail much like IBM failed. In other words, most of us really like that you are changing, so for goodness sakes don’t stop; you still have a ways to go.

False Threat?

Netscape was a paper tiger, a company built on smoke and mirrors which couldn’t, in the end, get out of its own way. The threat that Netscape would somehow become the next Microsoft was simply the pipe dream of a bunch of us who were writing fiction and didn’t realize it at the time. Linux has many of the same elements.

Even the fact that we are talking about Linux, which not only isn’t a company, but isn’t even an operating system, is a sham. There is no Linux product; not really, Linux only refers to the kernel which, by itself, doesn’t actually do much of anything. It is more the core point of a concept that surrounds “open source” which, in turn, is based on a false concept. This concept is that people actually want to look at source code.

Think about it: For decades we have surveyed companies and for decades, except for those who are actually in the software business, the vast majority have said they don’t want to be in the software business. Yet open source, as it is supposed to be practiced, puts you squarely in the software business. We also know that IT buyers want the vendor to enjoy all of the product liability associated with an offering, but open source, at best, passes some of that liability to the customer, and, at worst, all of it.

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.

Those of us that have been following this market for decades have seen this pattern over and over and over again and while it is never certain (click here to read an interesting abstract discussion on the misuse of history to prove a future event) it would seem likely that, unless something dramatically changes, by 2015 we’ll be largely wondering what all the fuss surrounding Linux was really about.

Sometimes no matter how big a balloon looks you have to just wonder if the important part isn’t simply all of the hot air.

Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.


    • I totally agree with your comments.
      I’ve been using Windows for nearly 10 years now. Every step of the way I have had problems with drivers, software, hardware upgrades, spyware shutting my entire system down, etc. It’s been a long battle but because of all of it I have become quite knowedgeable about Windows and MS products. I’ve also become fed up with the Windows Experiance. I could handle everything up to the spyware experiance…now I’m looking elsewhere for my basic computer needs.
      A friend of mine convinced me to convert my old AMD box into a Debian Linux box and I decided to go along with it, after all, I still had my XP laptop and the poor AMD box had seen much better days (and many changes since it began life as a 486). I was really suprized by the change in the AMD box and became intrested in Linux as an alternitive to Windows….so my search began.
      I’m now running Xandros 3.0 OCE on my laptop and AM AM azed at the complete world that Linux offers me. Have I had problems? Yes, ofcourse I have. But I can solve them, I can administer my own box (thanks to Xandros) and I’m learning about Linux. It’s no differnent then my computing experiance back when I started to learn Windows 98.
      The comments that Mr. Enderle makes about it not being an opperating system really blow my mind. It does all that windows does and in a few cases more. My wife is even happy with it…now if I can only convince her to make the full switch there will finally be peace in the house. I have no fear of learning Linux…if I can learn Unix/Aix/Dos/Win 95 at the same time, I can learn Linux.
      Mr. Enderle has one thing correct…Linux is a major threat to MS and unless MS not only truly changes but can reinvent their image to convince the masses that they truly have changed…it’s all downhill for MS. Linux is primed for the Desktop Market. Linux is gaining acceptance in the workplace. Many companies are making Linux a priority. Universities are considering adding Linux/OS programs to their list of coures. In short, Linux is becoming a viable threat for the vary reasons Mr. Enderle listed….it’s opensource and it’s free. As people understand what that means, Linux will only become more attractive to the masses.
      Linux is not for geeks anymore…it’s becomming mainstream. That is what MS fears…a computing experiance that is just as easy as Windows, without all the cost and hassle assicated with Windows.

      • < – I agree (the author is clueless, on this one), the article used some facts about market dynamics and the xenophobic MS-Gates Corps attempting to feebly battle the revolting alien-concepts of Capitalism with a business model called "Openness".
        < –
        < – "Openness" Capitalism appears to naturally creates strong global economic relationships and competition, and then shares product/project successes that can morph into product improvements and/or new products (for the same folks), other businesses, corporation, institutions, and may even alter some government iconic structures for the better. GPL is being reworked for version 3.0 (I think) to address some of the Public and market problems currently experienced in "Openness" businesses for US, EU, UN, and others.
        < –
        < – FOSS, GNU-Linux, GPL…Public-IPR are (I believe) the architectural concepts and building materials for the future global economy with ethical character and performance far superior to the old industrial-age business model to which most Microsoft and Oil companies belong, and most politicians champion with religious like dogma BS.
        < –
        < – Even the "interesting abstract discussion" link took historical concepts and quotes way out of context in a superficial religious fervor which reminded me of the past four decades of presidential elections marketeering always spinning truth into lies (and vice-versa) for ignoble victory (rather than honorable purpose).
        < –
        < – The institutions/businesses that are old industrial-age modeled may be focusing (h4h4 – as history proves…) on Nietzschean "survival of the fittest"; rather than realizing that, change and evolution frequently has nothing to do with "survival of the fittest", but everything to do with the higher ethical standards of survival by ability to adapt to change [evolve] and prospering as a species.
        < –
        < – The industrial-age modeled businesses are either evolving within a fast changing predictable stable pleasant ecosystem, or like dinosaurs going extinct as simple limited entities in an extremely highly volatile hostile environment. Failure is always an option for the weak or incapacitated.
        < –

        • > The kernel doesn’t do much of anything? Well, you just demonstrated to the world your utter lack of knowledge concerning Linux. The kernel, in fact, is what drives *everything*, even applications.
          He said, the kernel, BY ITSELF, doesn’t do anything. What good is the kernel if there are no applications? Linux would be completely unusable. BTW, I think he is talking from an end user’s perspective, not a device driver writer’s or an application developer’s. To an end user, the kernel doesn’t do anything, it’s the applications on top of it thats he is concerned about because that what he uses.

  • It’s been said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. I fear that if we all thought as Mr. Enderle does, history will indeed repeat itself over & over again with respect to Microsoft. I remember when Windows 95 came out, one would have thought it was the Second Coming, only to have this all vanish as the EULA was read. To put it plainly, Microsoft never does anything that is not in the best interest of Microsoft, whether the customer benefits as a result or not. Microsoft will never change unless and until they absolutely have to, and for no longer than deemed necessary to convince the public that they are repentant and have changed their ways. Then it will be back to business as usual. How quickly people forget.
    My wife & I have been using Linux on our home computer full-time now (it was her idea) for about 7 months. It has been the most trouble-free and peaceful 7 months we have had on this system. No viruses. No spyware. And NO DEFRAG!! And I have used Linux at work for better than a year. Yes, I still use Windows for some things (especially at work) but the bulk of my computing is done sans Windows. Do I hate Microsoft? No. I just do not like their business practices, and as a previous poster stated, the fact that they buy their way out of trouble. Is Linux perfect? Far from it. But, then, neither is Windows. And, no, Mr. Enderle, I AM not interested in the software "business" just because I choose to use Open Source software. I like the fact that I own the right to use this software as I see fit, and not just own the CD that it came on. Would anyone knowingly buy a car with the hood welded shut? Yet that’s what happens when you agree to most EULA’s. You touch it, we sue you. With Linux, if something isn’t right, I may not know how to fix it, but at least I can tinker, and if it breaks, I get to keep both pieces. But I already knew that.
    Microsoft has gotten to where they are today, as a previous poster stated, by stealing, steamrollering, and subverting, and by virtue of the fact that the general populace has a pretty short memory. My guess is that it’s not going to change any time soon. I would not go calling Microsoft safe just yet. They have changed, yes. But for how long?

  • You really don’t understand how disgusted and angry we’ve gotten with Microsoft’s behavior since the late 80’s. Microsoft has lied and cheated its way to dominance in the computer industry, and it shows no signs of changing its behavior. Many of us using and promoting Linux used to be Microsoft advocates until it because crystal clear just what Microsoft was becoming. And by the time we had finally realized what was happening it was too late to make a difference. I have on my bookshelf Andrew Schulman’s "Unauthorized Windows 95", where he went through and basically showed that MS had lied about the 32-bit underpinings MS had written about in "Inside Windows 95". We learned in UW95 that Win95 was nothing more than Windows 4 on top of MSDos 7. That was, for me, the turning point with regards to Microsoft. From that point I promoted Unix (Solaris), then Linux.
    Microsoft has stolen every idea it sells in every product from the time it was writing BASIC for the Altair in New Mexico in 1975 to the present. (Alan and Gates stole time on the Harvard mainframe to use the 8080 emulator to write their expression of BASIC, a language that was based on open and published standards). And they’ve lied about the capabilities of their software for just as long. Back when they were a little company "just" selling MSDOS we put up with Microsoft because of the far richer marketplace for applications and tools. But we can’t ignore them any more; they own well over 95% of the PC market for the OS, and they’ve got all the sectors pretty well sewn up too. The only two they don’t have complete dominance over are games and antivirus, but they’re doing everything they can to finish those off as well.
    We want Linux and Free BSD and yes, even Inferno (what you still think of as Plan 9) because we have something more than just source code. We’ve got freedom from the iron boot of Microsoft. You’re right that very few want to do something with all the source code, but the real reason we want open source is because the whole thing is open, from process to engineering to source code to final usage as we see fit.
    You’ve been quite disingenuous presenting the reasons and the facts with regards to the Open Source/Free Software movement. We have decades of well-documented history to show us what Microsoft is all about, history that you paper over and spin far differently than what is factually documented. Microsoft can tone down their retoric and back off the strident anti-GPL claims, but the fact remains that Microsoft is unbowed and unrepentant all around the world. They believe they have the money to buy their way out of every spot of trouble, and that’s exactly what they’re doing. Microsoft will not change because they don’t have to. This is all about politics and perception, not about fundamental structural change.

  • Obviously he does not consider that to the many thousands who do not work for Microsoft and who develop important globally adopted products that run on Microsoft’s Operating Systems, the kernel and associated libraries is what they too are concerned about.
    In the above case, Microsoft offers nothing more than Linux does — Think of Oracle and others.
    Independent developers, development companies, services providers, govs, etc, that set the precedent for platform adoption, can quite easily change the state of the game…. [customers are quite fickle – they owe MSoft no alegiences in real terms – though it is nice to see a Microsoft Zealot from time to time]
    Sham or not, real competitivity and, much as you have shown, the state of politics – will be the deciding factors… And to those who know, it is indeed a very murky buisness…

  • Sure — except for the filesystem (HPFS vs. NTFS), the desktop paradigm (Microsoft’s Windows 3.1 Project Manager vs. IBM’s WorkPlace Shell), the kernel, their VDM subsystems, and their native APIs, the two OSes were exactly the same…
    Mr. Enderle seems to forget that even the 32-bit version of OS/2 2.0 (released by IBM with a ton of technology never shared with and in many ways still not equalled by Microsoft) was released in the spring of 1992, almost a full year before the first version of NT (3.1).
    The two OSes share *very* little in common except for a distant DOS heritage. One might as well call Linux an earlier version of Solaris/x86.

  • I’ll bet the author gets his clothes (and stories) from Dvorak. "Not even an OS" indeed. Just hold still; the steamroller won’t hurt a bit…

  • Enderle’s quote "Yet open source , as it is supposed to be practiced, puts you squarely in the software business." is wrong.
    If you don’t want to look at the software pay Red Hat or Novell or some other company to do it for you.
    The source code for Red Hat Enterprise Linux (and every other Linux) can be downloaded and most importantly:
    Compare this to WindowsNT. When Microsoft decides they aren’t going to maintain it anymore, you are forced to migrate. That means reinstalling everything on your server, against your wishes, and at great expense.

  • <<<<There is no Linux product; not really, Linux only refers to the kernel which, by itself, doesn’t actually do much of anything. It is more the core point of a concept that surrounds "open source" which, in turn, is based on a false concept. This concept is that people actually want to look at source code.>>>>
    The kernel doesn’t do much of anything? Well, you just demonstrated to the world your utter lack of knowledge concerning Linux. The kernel, in fact, is what drives *everything*, even applications. But given your lack of technical finesse, it’s easy to understand why you don’t understand this.
    Your assertion that people don’t want to look at the source code is utterly false. Google for gpl-violations and you will find a web site that documents companies that are suspected of using GPL code without fully complying with the license. There’s quite a few big names, Mr. Enderle.

  • OK, I’ll ask again. This is LinuxInsider right? Whats going on here. First stories about how wonderful software patents are, now a boy we really like what Linux is forcing Microsoft to do but still look forward to a future with no choice of OS…?!?!?
    If I don’t see a Paul Murphy column soon, I’m out of here.

  • Apparently, my nym is some kind of derogatory term out west. Well…sorry about that. It’s been my nym for years and it doesn’t mean anything close to an insult to anyone.
    So Rob, you really think that by 2015 Linux is only going to be a minor stain in IT history? I just don’t understand how you can make that statement.
    Sure, I totally agree that it isn’t the best thing since sliced bread and isn’t everything to everyone. But in my opinion, it’s a pretty damn good, solid and flexible operating system. You don’t think that there’ll be a place for that in the Future??
    With the laughable Longhorn staying just beyond the horizon year after year, and with a lot of it’s key features already having been removed, you still think it’ll take over and kill Linux to the point where we’ll be laughing about it in 10 years?
    Unless of course Microsoft succeeds in the same tactics it’s always used (steal,steamroll and subvert) I really can’t begin to understand what in the present state of things, or in any of the things to come, could possibly be making you reach those conclusions. From this article, I can only guess that you’re making this stuff up. You claim Microsoft has been changing their ways. But didn’t they basically indirectly finance a lawsuit to slow down or even kill Linux? Have they not JUST been convicted in Europe? Aren’t they right now pushing really hard in the EU for the same, very bad and destructive software patent system that the US already has? Didn’t they lower the price of the software in third world countries, AND drastically reduce the quality as well as usability of their OS JUST in order to compete with Linux? Doesn’t "shared source" licenses pretty much say ‘you can see our code, but then we own yours"?
    They are a convicted monopolist in multiple countries, since the late 80’s they have ravaged the industry they claim to be the heart of. To me, it’s going to take a LOT more then a few "good" months and an analyst’s article to make me think that Microsoft has changed it’s ways…
    Linux might not be everything to everyone, and really shouldn’t. But Neither should Microsoft…not even close.
    ps: I’m Frech Canadian and I’ll hide behind that excuse for any grammar mistake you may find in this message…

  • Please… Mr. Enderle misses the point of open source so badly, his articles are more frustration than it’s worth to read. The point of open source for me as a user isn’t in seeing the source code. The point is that it is available to me.
    There have been countless programs for Windows that have gone away over the years that in my opinion have no equivalent replacement. Either the company went out of business, they were bought out and the product buried, or the individual developing it lost interest and let it die. Whatever the reason, the closed source nature of that software forced me to find alternate and in most cases inferior replacements.
    With open source software, even if the project dies, I could modify, or rather pay someone else to modify and/or update the program for me. I have that right and freedom, and AM in turn motivated by its license to make those changes available to others. The program need never die.
    I don’t hate Microsoft, although the numerous problems taken for granted by many make it’s OS more trouble than it’s worth for me to use.
    I’ve used Linux for 8 years, and only purchased a couple commercial distros. After that I’ve only used free distros. Yesterday I upgraded the OS and all the software on 3 of my computers with the click of a button. It downloaded everything from the internet and installed it while I continued webbrowsing and watching tv.
    Linux is easy to use, easy to upgrade and install software, and very much free. There is more software than I will ever have time to use. My wife has not complained about a virus, system slowdowns, blue screens, etc. in the 4 years she has been using Linux. Linux is peace of mind. I can upgrade and install software constantly without even thinking about managing CD’s and License keys. I don’t need antivirus software, adaware, spybot, etc.
    I like not having to pay money for an OS and software, it’s not that I hate Microsoft. I like having lots of computers and up to date software and OS on them. I like that open source software changes rapidly, and I can upgrade with it.
    Open source appeals to people with older systems, who don’t want to buy new computers, new software, and new problems. Linux breathes new life into systems they thought were obsolete. The Windows myth has been broken for them. I frequently assist people in upgrading to Linux.
    Mr. Enderle’s conclusions concerning linux and open source are just wrong. It’s sad, but people actually take his word for things.

  • I think the author’s prediction that Linux will fade away is suspect. If one visits Mr.Enderle’s website you will find that he proudly lists Micro$oft first AM ong his clients. I think his readers should know this.
    I believe that current trends indicate Linux is here to stay.

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