15 January 2006

Microsoft's Next Desperation?

One indication of Microsoft's inability to handle the threat of the free software model is that fact that it keeps changing its strategy.

Back in 1999, it tried to show that Windows was more powerful than comparable GNU/Linux systems. It commissioned some research from a company called Mindcraft, which showed that Windows was indeed faster for many tasks. There were bitter arguments about the validity of these tests and their results, and several re-runs as each side tried to bolster its own position.

But what is interesting about this episode is that the weaknesses that were exposed in the GNU/Linux system were simply fed into the development process and fixed in the next release. This indicates one of the great strengths of open source. Solving problems is just a matter of skill; what is hard is pinning them down in the first place. Ironically, Microsoft did the Linux community a huge favour by spending lots of money finding the weak areas of its rival, which were then fixed.

Since GNU/Linux was soon manifestly as good as Windows in terms of performance, Microsoft was forced to change tack. In June 2001, Steve Ballmer famously told the Chicago Sun-Times that "Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches". However, the business world was clearly less impressed by Ballmer's verbal tantrums than the his sales teams, and the outburst backfired badly. It merely showed Microsoft to be running scared.

More recently, the company has apparently adopted a more conciliatory attitude to the free software world - a recognition of the fact that its customers are using it. But clearly, in closed rooms around the company, it is still searching desperately for something it can against open source.

One emerging tack was evident in a fascinating article that appeared in a magazine aimed at Microsoft Certified Professionals. In it, there was a glimpse into how the Microsoft world views the free software threat. Of particular note is the assertion that "Microsoft invests north of $6 billion a year on R&D", and that "nobody in the Linux world" does anything comparable. The implication would seem to be that Microsoft is therefore a hotbed of creativity and innovation, whereas all free software can do is limp along with tired old tricks.

An extensive and thorough debunking of this assertion came from D C Parris in LXer. All the points he raises are good ones, but I'd like to focus on one in particular.

The statement that Microsoft is serious spending sums on research is true: you only have to look at Microsoft's Research division to see the wide range of work going on. Moreover, to Microsoft' credit, much of this work is made freely available in the form of published papers.

But the second part of the argument - that open source companies taken together spend nowhere near as much as Microsoft - is specious. The whole point about free software is that it represents the communal efforts of thousands of people around the world, most of whom receive no remuneration for their work. Indeed, money probably couldn't even buy the kind of obsessive attention to detail they routinely provide: it comes from passion not payment.

The new argument that the quotation from the above article is putting about comes down to this: that something given freely is worth nothing. In a way, this is the fundamental error that those who do not understand the open world make. In fact, the issue is much larger, and goes to the root of most of the key problems facing the world today. Which is why the "opens" - open source, open genomics, open content and all the cognate approaches - are so crucial: they lie at the heart of solving those same problems.


Anonymous said...

A point I made in my own BlogSpot rant on the topic is that a goodly chunk of that R & D is spent on figuring out how to lock in and entrap customers.

Yes, granted, some of Microsoft’s R & D is 100% blue sky, but how much cyanide does it take to spoil a loaf of bread?

Glyn Moody said...

I'm certainly not claiming Microsoft's R & D is whiter than white: simply that it does pay for a lot of "real" (=not immediately applicable) research, rather as other tech giants do.

Of course, this still undermines the figure of $6 billion....