Halloween XI: Get The FUD
22 Jun 2004
I've just seen a dispatch from the front lines of the FUD wars, Huw Lynes's report
from one of Microsoft's Get The
Facts roadshow in Great Britain. It's a fascinating read,
especially when considered in context with Halloween
VII and more recent leaks out of Microsoft. The outlines of the
next stage in Microsoft's anti-open-source propaganda campaign are
becoming clear. It's a good time to take stock of where we are, what
our favorite evil empire is doing, and how best to respond.
(Writing code that doesn't suck always has to be our base-level and most
important response, but the propaganda war matters too. If it's not already
obvious to you why, keep reading.)
Let's start by reminding ourselves of the stakes. For Microsoft
(or at least its present business model) to survive, open source
must die. It's a lot like the Cold War was; peaceful coexistence
could be a stable solution for us, but it can never be for them,
because they can't tolerate the corrosive effect on their customer
relationships of comparisons with a more open system. (Anyone who
thinks I'm being perfervid or overly melodramatic about this should
direct long-term revenue and platform threat
language from Halloween
I. Other people may fool themselves about what this means, but
Microsoft never has.).
Because coexistence is not a stable solution for them, it cannot be
for us either. We have to assume that Microsoft's long-term aim is to
crush our culture and drive us to extinction by whatever combination
of technical, economic, legal, and political means they can muster.
So, in evaluating the
Get the Facts road show, we need to start
by asking how it fits into Microsoft's larger strategic plans.
One level is obvious. It seems to me very likely that Microsoft's
UK tour is designed as a trial run of themes that they'll take to the
U.S. to the extent they look successful. The UK is not a trivial
market, of course, but 50% of all IT spending is still in the U.S., so from
a Microsoft strategic planner's point of view that's where the main
battle is. We can afford to pin some of our hopes on growth
in Europe and developing countries and elsewhere, but Microsoft can't
— the time horizon on it is too long for a company whose big
challenge is to keep beating revenue expectations every quarter in a
market where they have 92% share (if they don't beat those
expectations every quarter, their stock tanks, the option pyramid
collapses, and it's game over).
The Dog That Didn't Bark
So, how does this FUD campaign differ from all other FUD campaigns?
Let's start by considering the things Microsoft is not doing
in this road show.
They seem to have abandoned using the "open source is
intellectual-property cancer" argument directly. This follows the advice
their own survey group gave them two years ago that this tactic was
backfiring badly. Instead they're pushing this line through bought
proxies at SCO and elsewhere.
They've quit claiming that Microsoft's products are technically
superior. Instead, they talk up transition costs.
innovation, which was every other word out of
a Microsoft exec's mouth a year ago, now seems to have quietly exited
their voculabulary. It isn't in Huw's report, and it doesn't show up
on the Get
The Facts page.
Finally, we're not seeing the very recent Microsoft line that actually
all software is proprietary because it's owned by somebody, so
there's no difference between proprietary and open source.
Like the dog that didn't bark in the night-time, these omissions
are significant, because Microsoft marketing is thorough and
ruthlessly opportunistic. You can bet money that the reason they're
not making these arguments is because they tried them on smaller focus
groups, or individually with key customers, and they didn't fly.
The New Party Line
Now let's review what Microsoft is doing. Huw gives us
five bullet points:
- Claim that linux isn't free.
- Pretend that Shared source is the same as Open Source
- Make a big deal about the migration costs of moving to Linux
- Use the Forrester report to claim that Linux is insecure
- Belittle the quality of the toolset available on Linux
I'll take on all of these, but in reverse, saving the most
interesting for last. Do I even need to point out that most of the
factual claims are blatant lies brought to you by the same people who
got caught faking video evidence in their Federal antitrust trial?
Belittling the quality of the toolset available on Linux
actually reduces to a TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) argument, because
what a poor toolset means to a manager is that he'd have to
hire more administrators to cover the same number of machines. I'll
have more to say about winning the TCO argument in a bit.
Use the Forrester report to claim that Linux is insecure.
Huw didn't give a link to Red
Hat's counterargument. It's a good one, and I'll build some
recommendations for action on it later on.
Make a big deal about the migration costs of moving to
Linux. Beating this one is easy. All you have to point out is
that migration costs money once, but per-seat Microsoft licensing fees are
forever. Unless Linux TCO is substantially greater than Windows TCO,
the sooner you switch, the more money you save. (Yes, this remains true
even given discounting of future expenses, unless you peg the
conversion cost absurdly high.)
The really interesting and novel lines are Huw's report of
arguments 1 and 2: Claim that Linux isn't free and
Pretend that Shared Source is the same as Open Source.
Though these have been foreshadowed elsewhere, we haven't seen these
used as headline arguments before, and they add up to nearly a
reversal of the position Microsoft has taken in the past. Whereas
Microsoft has before tried to claim that its products and licensing
are different from and better than and more
innovative than Linux's, now they're reduced to arguing that you
should stick with Microsoft because
shared source is just the
same as open source. Really. Ignore the attack lawyers behind the
Linux isn't free. Hello? If there is actually anyone
still left on the planet who thinks the term
free software was
a good idea, I hope they're paying attention. Because what Microsoft
is doing here is exploiting the old familiar gratis/libre ambiguity of
free in yet another way. They're setting up for a
free software advocates are lying or deluded because
Linux has a nonzero TCO. Therefore, goes the implication, you can't
really trust them about that other freedom thing, can you?
Semantic warfare — struggles over the meanings of words as
proxies for political or market positions — is just like other
kinds of warfare; you want to fight it on the other guy's turf, not
yours. Every minute we spend arguing with Microsoft flacks about what
free means is a win for them and a lose for us.
This is also why we need to attack the
shared in their
shared source rather than defending the
open in our
open source. Fortunately this is easy. We can ask why they
shared source when they're not giving up the right to
sue people who
share it for IP violations. Are they giving anything
away except the opportunity to be hauled into a courtroom the next time
you do something that Microsoft thinks is competitive with it?
Taking It To The Streets
Notice how defensive a position Microsoft is in now. Trying to
neutralize open source by equating it with shared source implicitly
concedes that open source is something customers want. Microsoft has
given up a lot of ground here. Make them give more. Hammer them
without mercy — but do it in a quiet, reasonable voice and keep
control of the terms of argument. Here are some sound bites for
open-source advocates to use in response to the
Get The Facts
Migration only costs money once; higher Windows TCO is forever.
Shared source is a poison pill.
Only the Windows boxes get the worms.
The thing not to do is talk abstractions. FSF-style
user's rights has its uses
occasionally, but it will register on this campaign's target audience
of bottom-line-fixated IT managers as irrelevant or nutty. And when
you look irrelevant or nutty, you hand Microsoft a victory.
To put the Microsofties really on the spot, it's most effective to
phrase your counters as questions, especially when you can use them to
whack Microsoft with a combination of issues like TCO and security.
How many Linux machines have been zombied by Netsky, Sasser,
MyDoom, or similar worms? Do your Windows TCO estimates include
administrator time spent cleaning up after these
Can you explain why Windows IIS websites are cracked or
defaced more often than Apache ones, despite the fact that IIS
runs less than a third the number of sites Apache does?
Is Microsoft willing to add a hold-harmless clause to Shared
Source licenses that protects shared-source licensees against being
sued by Microsoft for alleged IP violations related to the software?
If not, then please explain again how
Shared Source is just the
same as open source?
What This Campaign Tells Us
We're winning, people. Microsoft has failed to stop us with better
software technology or lower prices; they're incapable of the former
and their business model wouldn't survive the latter. The SCO lawsuit
isn't flattening our uptake curve enough for anyone to notice. The
defections are mounting at previously captive customers; good recent
examples include the French
governments. Microsoft has to be particularly worried about the huge
increase in Linux server shipments Gartner reported
in 1Q2004; on current trends, we'll pass Microsoft not just in shipped
units but in dollar volume early next year. They are not merely feeling the
pressure, it has passed their pain threshold.
The choice of arguments in the
Get The Facts campaign is an
obvious circle-the-wagons move to defend Microsoft's base of large
corporate customers and governments. In itself, it is unlikely to
accomplish much; at best, if they're both lucky and persuasive, it may
slow down the rate of defections temporarily. But it's not going to
do any better than that, and here's why:
Microsoft's underlying problem is that it employs about 22,000
programmers; the open-source community can easily muster ten times
that number. That means the capability gap that has opened up between
the open-source codebase and Windows is only going to get worse from
Microsoft's point of view, not better. Time, technology, and market
forces are not on their side — so, to survive, they're going to
have to change the game so that market forces and the open-source
advantage in technology become irrelevant.
So what is Microsoft going to do to try to claw back control after
Get The Facts campaign runs out of sufficiently gullible
targets? I expect it to involve legal and political shenanigans much
bigger and uglier than we've yet seen. We've been expecting an attack
using junk patents as weapons for two years, and I think the only
thing that has held it off is that a convicted predatory monopolist
with 92% market share can't expect to sue a bunch of developers who
are giving stuff away for anyone to use without taking a severe
drubbing in the court of public opinion.
I don't doubt they'll get desperate enough to do that, though. The
emergence of institutions like the Public Patent Foundation and Groklaw gives us weapons of our
own, but expect some bruising battles ahead.
Expect Microsoft to ally even more closely with the RIAA and
MPAA in making yet another try at hardware-based DRM restrictions
— and legislation making them mandatory. The rationale will be
to stop piracy and spam, but the real goal will be customer control and
a lockout of all
unauthorized software. Two
previous attempts at this have failed, but the logic of Microsoft's
situation is such that they must keep trying.
I also expect a serious effort, backed by several billion dollars
in bribe money (oops, excuse me,
campaign contributions), to
get open-source software outlawed on some kind of theory that it aids
terrorists. We can only defeat that by making sure that national
governments become so attached to open-source code that their military
men and bureaucrats will short-stop the bribed legislators, rather than
let their vital infrastructure be outlawed.
The most important thing the hacker community does is write better code.
Our deeds are the best propaganda we have. Most of us, most of the time,
shouldn't be distracted by worrying about beating Microsoft's PR or
countering their political moves, because writing good code is
in the long run a far more potent weapon than flackery. But some of
us, some of the time, do need to be paying attention to the
confrontation and propaganda aspects, lest we be blindsided in the
shorter term by (say) super-DMCA legislation that instantly makes us all
Large corporations were the right first target for outreach five years ago,
because converting some of them was the most efficient way to change
the demand patterns perceived by the rest of the computer and software
industry. That trend is self-sustaining now; I think we passed the
tipping point about six months back, and the
Get The Facts
campaign is evidence of this.
But in the next year, I think we need to focus more on government
adoptions, in order to protect our political and legislative flanks.
We need to make the cost of suppressing us higher than the sixty billion
dollars Microsoft can afford to pay.