Microsoft vs. Linux: The Battle for Belief

Comparing Microsoft (the company) to Linux (the operating system kernel) might seem like comparing a city to a door — or maybe even a hinge. However, Linux is more than just a technology. It is the poster child for the open-source movement.

In the minds and hearts of its supporters, Linux has come to embody several ideals, from “free” as in freedom to “free” as in free beer, and it has captured a following that often seems to be more religious than technical.

However, Microsoft comes into this battle with more than US$40 billion in resources, the most comprehensive platform of any vendor (.NET) and dominance in several markets. The company’s products are well understood, and several are considered standards in and of themselves. In technology, no company is more powerful than Microsoft. Only Intel even comes close.

Now, the one thing that can topple a company with strength equivalent to an entrenched government is a large number of well-coordinated people focused on taking that company down. Religious groups, because they have structure and focus, typically can do a better job of coordinating these kinds of attacks.

For example, because communism initially functioned more like a religion than an economic model, it was this religious aspect that made it initially successful and also scared the other states half to death.

Linux Assets and Exposure

Linux operates like a young religion. Many of its underlying concepts are similar to those of a commune. Ownership of key assets is avoided, the community works and shares in the results of its labor, and there is an avid and active hate for the competing capitalistic model — in this case exemplified by Microsoft.

The concepts and beliefs that surround Linux represent the greatest threat that Microsoft has ever faced because this threat is not embodied in another company but in a semireligious concept.

However, like most religions, Linux’s strength is also its weakness. Much like communism needed the threat of capitalistic states to hold focus, Linux desperately needs Microsoft if it is to remain an iconoclast. This focus is incredibly hard to sustain over long periods of time, mainly because organizations change. After all, Microsoft can and likely will adapt to the open-source threat. In addition, the commune model assumes something about human behavior that isn’t true: It is based on the belief that people are equal.

Despite the prevalent misconception about huge numbers of open-source programmers, the development of Linux itself was largely due to the efforts of a small group of people. This imbalance is common to this model of development — and it continues today. Over time, particularly if the threat holding the group together is removed, the people doing most of the work will leave the effort because they feel unappreciated and underrewarded.

You can quickly see how someone who worked for months to solve a problem might get upset if IBM took that work and used it to close a multimillion-dollar engagement.

Microsoft’s Growing Exposure

Over the past five years, I’ve seen a major change in the people who back Microsoft. Five years ago, I was quoted in several articles supporting Microsoft. While I was attacked for these quotes, people came from all walks of life to defend my position and reputation.

Recently, I wrote a column that attempted to create a more balanced perception of Microsoft, and, as before, I was broadly attacked. While I did have some defenders, the difference in numbers was dramatic. My sense is that, gradually, over the past 5 or 10 years, Microsoft has been bleeding advocates. Those who remain to support the company are less and less likely to expose themselves by defending it.

However, this advocacy can cut both ways. The zealots have a tendency to overplay their hand and become an asset to the other side. I’ve often thought that one way to defend against a threat is to create and empower zealots for the other side and then let them destroy their own initiative through their foolishness.

Ultimately, this Microsoft-vs.-Linux issue is more of a political battle than a technical one, which means the battle is more about marketing than about products. This is a fight for the hearts and minds of the IT decision-maker as well as the consumer.

Microsoft’s Defense

Two reports were recently issued — one by Forrester and one by Gartner — that point out that Linux is often more expensive than Windows. The Gartner report mirrors work I’ve done myself, and it should be no surprise to anyone that Linux is not yet ready for the general desktop, but that it does work well in terminal-like settings — think thin-client computing.

The Forrester report is more troubling for two reasons: It was funded by Microsoft, and it challenges the widely held belief that Linux is less expensive on some Web servers by showcasing a hard-to-believe 26 percent savings with .NET over Linux-J2EE software for application development.

However, I know the analyst who put this report together. John Rymer is one of the best and most ethical in the field, and he is considered to be one of the leading experts on this class of technology. If this is what he concluded, given the past quality of his work and his heavy focus on doing what is right, I have to believe it is well founded.

Another recent report challenged the belief that Windows servers are more vulnerable than their Linux counterparts. This report turns that notion on its ear, documenting 67 percent of all successful attacks were perpetrated against Linux servers and just 23.2 percent against Windows servers.

Netting It Out

The biggest problem for all three reports is that this isn’t a fight founded on facts, but on beliefs. Beliefs are very hard to overcome once established, and the belief that Linux is the better value is incredibly well established.

Clearly, both sides in this fight have advantages and disadvantages. The market remains Microsoft’s to lose, but while Microsoft might not be vulnerable to another company, it is vulnerable to an attack by a large, focused group like the one backing Linux.

This is a fight for perception. And like most religious fights, this one lacks perspective. Think through your decisions, whichever technology you choose, and make sure your decision is founded in fact — not simply belief.

Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a company founded on the concept of providing a unique perspective on personal technology products and trends.


  • Ok, so what open source religion do the governments of China, Korea, and Japan belong to? Maybe its the religion of good sense. Thier governments are collectively spending millions to provide a open source Linux based solution for thier government data centers, replacing NT, has that sunk in yet? The plan is to remove thier dependence on opaque prioprietary solutions and control the code base themselves. Over a billion people go that way, you feel the sucking wind blow, hey maybe they got something. Guess what…the three industrial power houses of Asia are bellying up to the bar for "free beer". Look, this isn’t about "religion", or hippies wanting thier "freedom" its about good economics and complete control of mission critical systems. When you get it you’ll understand you are backing the wrong horse.

  • A very interesting and thought provoking article, and I think you are correct in identifying the engine of Linux’s growing importance as the passion of a cause.
    Your last statement is an exhortation to base IT decisions on fact rather than on belief, and therefore to be wary of the Linux myth of low cost. But why on fact rather than on belief? Or rather, should I ask, why do you think that facts (by which I assume you mean costings) are more significant than beliefs (by which I mean principles, human values, and a longer view of self interest).
    I happen to believe that the concentration of economic (and therefore political, legal, and cultural) power in the hands of a few global corporations is dangerous for the future of freedom. I also believe that such concentration of power leads to abuse, and therefore a long term erosion of my own, and my companies economic liberties.
    The dichotomy between fact and belief is actually rather tired, and when we start to unpack what we actually mean, the distinction becomes somewhat blurred. I would accept that given the present trading conditions, using Microsoft products may (arguably) be more cost effective than Linux. The problem is that when we look further ahead our beliefs about how the future will pan out, and our beliefs about principles color our view of the "facts".
    So, I AM back to belief. And I believe that some facts are more important than short term benefits that accrue from conforming to the current monopoly. I think history supports the view that, in the long term, monopolies have a negative effect on wealth creation. For myself, I AM willing to risk the inconvenience and (potentially) higher real cost of using open source in order to secure a longer term position. Mind you, I still believe that Linux is a better financial proposition, even in the short term. There you go, those beliefs are hard to budge, so Microsoft had better watch out (SCO too). Religious wars are bloody affairs.

  • Three points in reply:
    1) While Linux started out as a volunteer project, over the past decade it has been joined by Linux companies, ISV’s, general computing industry companies like IBM, and lately, national governments. For instance, IBM has 250 programmers who work full time on the Linux kernel.
    2) Open source is far more powerful than the article presents. In the 1990’s, Microsoft had two main, bet-the-company, full-court-press initiatives. One was taking over the server market from Unix with NT, the other was taking over the Internet with IIS. Open source successfully blocked both these efforts.
    3) Microsoft’s power as a company is largely based on monopolies in the intel-compatible gui desktop os market, and in the desktop office applications market. With distributions like Mandrake 9.1 and the office suite StarOffice/OpenOffice, these two have now been cloned to a level good enough for a significant percentage of the population. This development will not eliminate Microsoft, but it will no longer have monopolies.

  • The only thing Linux needs to survive against Microsoft is for Microsoft to continue putting out buggy, subtlely non-compliant and insecure software. Having just spent 3 days fighting all the bugs and incompatibilities in MS’s implemententation of WebDav (web folders), I wonder if MS would be better served asking candidates to pass a reading comprehension test instead of asking them why manhole covers are round. Oh, and the network guys had fun last week working all night patching servers. Only good to come out of that is that all IIS servers are being replaced with Apache on Linux.

  • First of all, I fail to see any justification for your comparison of the free/OS software community to a religion. If it is anything, it is an ideology, or a philosophy. I would defend the allegation but there is nothing to defend–you failed to give any evidence for how the community is a religion or religion-like.
    Secondly, the comparison of the free/OS software community to communism is flawed. Communism deals with physical property, and the ideology of free/OS software is centered on ethereal ideas, rather than physical entities. This matters for many reasons. A piece of physical property can only be shared finite-wise, but "intellectual property" can be shared without limit. Furthermore, the economics of scarcity simply do not apply to "intellectual property". Scarcity is only gained by legalized monopolies concerning the embodiment or implementation of certain classes of ideas. So you will have to meet this objection and show why it is irrelevant if you wish to meaningfully compare free software to communism.
    Thirdly, your psychological profile of the free software community, even if true, is irrelevant. It is true that there are many instances of projects being spawned and continued due to the "threat" of Microsoft. For example, Mozilla vs. IE, KDE vs. Windows, vs. MSOffice, etc. However, there is even more competition BETWEEN various open source developers. We have KDE vs. Gnome, X Window System vs. Xouvert vs. Berlin, Mozilla vs. Konqueror, vs. KOffice, FreeBSD vs. OpenBSD vs. NetBSD, Linux vs. HURD, inter alia. While it is true that competition motivates in many cases more than cooperation, competition would not dissappear in the free software movement even if Microsoft suddenly dissolved. So the existence of the free software community is neither dependent on nor parasitic of Micrsoft’s existence.
    This leads into the fourth point. It is simply not the case that free software regards people’s abilities or their products as equal. Free software is a meritocracy, and is fueled by competition.
    Fifthly, you do not have to agree with free software to hate Microsoft. Microsoft has left a trail of dead competitors behind it. Perhaps it is because Microsoft is actually better, or perhaps it is because they compete unfairly. Regardless, many different attempts to compete with Microsoft using closed source technologies have gone belly up. Word Perfect, virtual memory managers, Trumpet Winsock, Netscape, BeOS, DR-DOS, and I AM certain many others that those with more historical knowledge than me could explicate. Many of these companies failed because duplicated functionality was bundled or integrated with the core Windows operating system. In many cases, we would say that Microsoft was justified in this position, such as with Trumpet Winsock. However, the point is that if you develop a product that enhances Windows to a degree that enabled you great profitability, Microsoft will eventually duplicate your functionality in the core OS, marginally increase the cost of Windows, and leave you without customers. The few exceptions to this are in highly specialized packages such as Photoshop and CAD, and games.
    Sixthly, I do not think the average free software programmer would be upset if their contributions were key to helping the spread of Linux. Even if it meant mega-profits not in the developer’s pockets, I still do not see how this could be a negative to the programmer. If I program feature X and this is the make-or-break feature that enables a multi-million dollar deal by IBM, do you think I will get nothing from this? No, for starters it is great resume fodder. Furthermore, in all likelihood I will be taken in as a consultant for my expertise on the feature in question. This translates into money in my pocket, and my morals are not compromised.
    Seventhly, as to zealots overplaying their hand, this is perhaps true. But the ability to provoke one to anger is certainly not a reliable indicator of an argument’s worth. It merely makes you a successful troll.
    Finally, I have to agree that there are empirical issues about the worth of Linux vs. Microsoft that cannot be answered a priori, and that must be met with open eyes. But I think the one positive aspect of free software that Microsoft will never be able to meet is its very freeness. Using Linux as the foundation of one’s business ENABLE’s freedom, rather than taking it away. A FREE market, essential to capitalistic ideals that you seem to espouse, is MORE enabled when one has the choice of multiple sellers and servicers. If I AM committed to Linux, my future options are always open. If I AM committed to Windows, I must follow the path that Microsoft sets before me, or undergo a costly migration. By granting Microsoft a virtual monopoly on my future business, I AM at their will for upgrade cycles, support agreements, and so on. This is why monopolies are bad, and anti-capitalistic. Moreover, they break down the meritocracy that is essential to the healthy operation of a capitalist economy.

  • I’m not too sure about the Gartner report, but the Forrester report completely misses the point. To prove it is really simple. All of the development tools used for the Linux case are available for windows. So, by doing the same study by comparing .NET on windows versuses J2EE on windows, I can say that developing on windows is cheaper thant developing on windows. Makes no sense, right? Well, that is because the report should be properly titled ".NET vs J2EE(using the particular java tools I chose for the comparison)".
    If you are going to compare OSs from the standpoint of development, you have to use the same development tools. Of course, .NET is not avaiable for Linux, only windows. Strike 1 against Microsoft because with them you are stuck with 1 platform.
    An OS comparison should be based soley on installation, maintainability, security and downtime. And to properly perform such a study, you have to assume that the administrators on both sides are of equal caliber. Not an MCSE trying to use Linux, because that would involve training cost and risk. You also don’t want to take an RHCE and give them windows, because this would skew the results in favor of Linux.
    An OS comparison should also assume starting from ground 0, not an "existing MS shop moving to windows" like most of these studies assume.
    I also find it interesting that the "studies" favor Microsoft while the "real world" cases of moving to Linux always favor linux. Maybe it’s just that the people who migrate to Linux and lose money are to scared to talk. Or maybe they don’t exist 😉
    Just my 2 cents.

  • Rob,
    Microsoft was not on Linus’s mind when he started work on his first Kernel. It was a UNIX like OS for the 386 Intel processor. Microsoft was not on the many programmers who submitted their first patches and improvements. They were, if I AM not mistaken, mostly from a UNIX environment.
    What their focus was and still is the sheer exhiliration and fun in being part of a such a project. Have you ever been involved in a project where you spent considerable time and energy, using skills you had acquired, and doing it for nothing except the satisfaction of seeing the project succeed? I have done so, and know many others who have done so. Habitat for Humanity is an example of an organization that does such on a regular basis.
    Not a religion. Just people helping out other people. No focus on some "enemy". A focus on doing something creative to help out others.
    The Open Source Community does not see Microsoft as an enemy, except when it overtly or covertly acts as one. It does not have its focus on hating Microsoft. Indeed, the Open Source Community’s greatest weakness, if you would call it such, is it’s very lack of focus. There are so many sub groups working on so many projects, many of which are never completed. I do not know how that compares with proprietary models, but many proprietary software products also are never completed, are never marketed.
    To be sure, the Open Source Community has attracted a lot of disgruntled former Microsoft users. And they are disgruntled for a reason. I would imagine that is where most of the flames against Microsoft would come from.
    I was never a Microsoft advocate in the first place. I started out with OS9 on a Radio Shack Color Computer. I was a GEOS user when I learned about Linux. It just suited my fancy. I do not hate Microsoft or its products. I have my own opionions about those products and some of their business practices. Using Linux is a matter of principle for me, but not a religion. Nor do I think that it can be accurately described as a religion and those who advocate Open Source and Linux as religious zealots as a group.
    There is differing beliefs on the two sides. One a belief in a totally closed and controlled proprietary model where the restrictions are used to benefit the company and the other is a model in which the voluntary restrictions are used to benefit anyone who wishes to use the software.
    If you will check back on the history of the Linux movement, I think that you will find that as long as it was mostly the domain of the geeks, that it attracted little notice by Microsoft. It was only after large enterprise corporations such as IBM, SGI, Oracle, etc. began to see the possibilities in Linux that Microsoft belatedly started taking Linux seriously.
    Now it is true that there are zealots on both sides, but it is fallacious to categorize an entire movement by the actions of the fringe zealots who engage their toungues/word processors/ etc. before they engage their brains.
    I have entertained the thought in passing that your articles often seem to play to those very fringes. They do seem to be long on rhetoric and short on any real facts. Hope I AM not categorizing you.

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