Saving Windows from Obsolescence in a Free-Market Economy

Posted by tuxchick on Dec 1, 2005 9:36 AM
LXer; By DC Parris

  LXer Feature: 12-01-2005

Bill Gates said he wanted to be able to make the next paradigm shift. Libre software has created a free-market economy in the technology realm. Don Parris offers Microsoft some free consulting to help them make that paradigm shift. What do you think of the two approaches he suggests?


Let's face it, the technology world is rapidly changing. Companies attempting to remain relevant must be able, not only to adopt to new technologies, but also to new economies, including the free-market economy built around libre software. Look around. Proprietary software is not dead yet. Even so, it is a dying economy. Whether and how companies like Microsoft can respond to the change is what will determine whether they remain relevant, or become obsolete in the new world.

Google's hackers are making Microsoft software unneccessary. Microsoft realized this when they realized that their employees preferred to use Google's tools over Microsoft's own. Apple is beginning to steal market share from Microsoft, thanks to their iPod. In corporate server rooms, GNU/Linux is primarily replacing UNIX, even though Microsoft has managed to make some gains in this area. On the desktops, several GNU/Linux systems are converting large numbers of people to dual-booting GNU/Linux and Windows, if not outright replacing Microsoft's flagship operating system. Slowly but surely, Microsoft is becoming obsolete.

Aside from the external threats, problems with Windows itself point to the need for serious change. Eight days after Microsoft relased the Vista beta, crackers had managed to publish proof-of-concept viruses for Vista. They were part of Monad, to be sure, and were likely to be disruptive, but not damaging. Still, it does not bode well for Windows security. Microsoft has thrown millions, if not billions, of dollars into Vista. For what? The closest thing they have to leading innovation (as opposed to mimicking others) is 3-D Flip. One would think that Microsoft would get a clue from other throw-more-money-at-the-problem adventures.

Considering the Alternatives

Let me say from the outset, that I do not expect Microsoft to pay much attention to what I say here. I'm sure they'll be giggling at the thought, if they even bother. Still, an Op/Ed piece is exactly that, one person expressing an opinion. This one is mine. We should also note, up front, that I am not here discussing Microsoft's ethics - or the lack thereof - where copyrights and patents are concerned, or their monopolist practices. Nor am I addressing Microsoft's political purchasing power, as demonstrated in their campaign against OpenDocument in Massachusetts. No, I am focusing on technological strategies that will help Microsoft survive in the libre software economy.

I suggest that Microsoft consider two alternatives to their present course. Since Microsoft is really Apple's biggest secret fan, they could follow the Apple approach, and adopt GNU/Linux or one of the BSDs as the underlying system, while offering their own, unique interface to run on top. Alternatively, they could GPL Windows - that's right, I said GPL it - and get free development contributions back from the community. Because each choice involves a different set of possibilities, we should consider them separately.

The Apple Approach: *NIX it

In following the Apple approach, Microsoft could adopt FreeBSD as its underlying OS, and still distribute the whole as Microsoft Windows. Doing this with GNU/Linux would be sticky, from a legal perspective. However, FreeBSD allows them more leeway in distributing the complete package as a proprietary distribution. And that's the advantage of this approach for a company whose heart is really in distributing software that deprives users of their fair-use rights.

Microsoft would benefit from the inherent security and stability of the *NIX platforms, as well as the already developed underlying core. They could focus on the user interface, which is one thing they seem to have going for them - at least according to popular opinion. Additionally, they would gain from the enhanced interoperability with other systems. Additionally, while MCSEs would need to adapt to the new core, they would still be familiar with the most important aspects of the Windows GUI. The cost to Microsoft is only whatever it takes to plug the GUI into FreeBSD. They could combine support and customization services with advertising revenue - assuming they are seriously considering an ad-supported OS - to reap the rewards of their efforts.

Obviously, this approach will require laying off a fair number of employees. An alternative would be to spin off these employees into smaller service companies, either as subsidiaries, or as independent, "preferred" service providers. The preferred status would let potential customers know that these smaller companies include former Microsoft employees, thus enhancing customer confidence. Microsoft would benefit from cutting the costs associated with revamping the OS every other version. Customers would benefit from being able to choose between a bundled Windows/BSD (or GNU/Linux) combination, or a separate GUI interface that they can plug into their favorite OS core.

This approach also offers Microsoft the benefit of accessing the wide range of libre software, some of which can be used in its own system. The downside is that this approach leaves Microsoft in the realm of the proprietary, thus limiting interoperability and depriving Microsoft of the benefits of the libre software development community itself. Whether this is really the headache that Microsoft claims it would be depends on how they go about managing the community's input. Of course, Microsoft has several examples upon which they can base their community involvement process.

Set Windows Free

On the one hand, this seems the least likely approach for Microsoft. After all, this is the company that called the GPL "unconstitutional" and has thus far refused to have much, if anything, to do with it. Since they have released their own copyleft license, that would be a possibility as well. Whatever the case, they can release Windows under a copyleft license, thus requiring community developers who modify and distribute their software to release modifications back to the community. Microsoft will benefit from the free development, and it can choose whether or not to incorporate a given modification into its own version.

This option also opens the doors of interoperability wide. Whereas Microsoft currently seems to fear losing customers and revenue, they may lose some revenue, but will most likely retain large numbers of customers. Of course, that's better than losing revenue and customers when your software becomes obsolete because no one can interoperate with it. It also beats dying a slow, tortuous death. Interoperability is a key issue that any company with a mind to stay in business needs to consider. Again, Microsoft will need to spin off several services businesses to provide customization and support services. Spinning them off as subsidiaries would allow the income to come back to Microsoft and Bill Gates.

One of the major benefits of this approach - at least for users - is that Windows would surely get the attention of a Debian-styled community that will only release stable versions. Thus, the advanced users, who have more experience with security and so forth, can choose from the testing or unstable pools if they so desire. Meanwhile, the regular end-users can draw from the stable pool, after the majority of the security issues have been addressed. In fact, a Debian-styled community might even undertake to give Windows the serious revamping it needs.

Well, these are just two ideas that could help Microsoft save their beloved operating system. One allows them to keep the proprietary licensing model, regardless of how dumb that is, while benefitting from the stable UNIX core. The other allows them to benefit from the input of the larger community, and should drastically improve their current code base. Both represent huge improvements over their current model while losing the evil monopolist image. When your company is struggling, as Microsoft clearly is, to remain relevant in a free-market economy, you need to examine your business model as well as your software. I'll leave you to figure out if there's a snowball's chance in a really hot place of Microsoft managing this paradigm shift.

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Subject Topic Starter Replies Views Last Post
great ideas ktraglin 8 1,703 Dec 5, 2005 3:13 PM
no they missed that goal maggrand 12 2,166 Dec 5, 2005 11:49 AM

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