A Brief History of Microsoft FUD

Posted by tadelste on Mar 30, 2006 10:32 AM EDT
LXer.com; By Glyn Moody
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   This time it's patents that will ensure the downfall of GNU/Linux and with it, the entire world of open source. But before hanging up your certified geek propeller-hat and retraining as a dental hygienist, you might want to consider the following brief history of Microsoft's use of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) as a weapon against GNU/Linux.

You've got to hand it to him: Steve Ballmer is a master of innuendo. In a recent interview, published in Forbes, he manages to say nothing and threaten everything:

Quoting:Well, I think there are experts who claim Linux violates our intellectual property. I'm not going to comment. But to the degree that that's the case, of course we owe it to our shareholders to have a strategy.

So, this time it's patents that will ensure the downfall of GNU/Linux and with it, the entire world of open source. But before hanging up your certified geek propeller-hat and retraining as a dental hygienist, you might want to consider the following brief history of Microsoft's use of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) as a weapon against GNU/Linux. It's a story that goes back nearly a decade, and one that has evolved through various stages of corporate denial.

1997: It's not a threat

When I was writing a feature about GNU/Linux for Wired magazine, I contacted Microsoft to find out their views on this new rival. At that time, they were so laid back about it, they were nearly falling over. In fact, GNU/Linux was such a negligible threat, they couldn't be bothered coming up with even a mild bit of FUD for me. They just said: "We have a very talented team of developers making sure NT is the most powerful, flexible, and easy-to-use operating system.”

1999: It's not very powerful

By 1999, Microsoft's position that GNU/Linux wasn't a threat was no longer tenable. Articles started appearing in the technical press that not only dared to compare GNU/Linux with Microsoft's flagship Windows NT, but actually found it better. One, in a Ziff-Davis title called Sm@rt Reseller, for example, stated: “According the ZDLabs' results, each of the commercial Linux releases ate NT's lunch”.

But help was at hand. In April 1999, a performance testing company called Mindcraft issued a press release headed “Mindcraft study shows Windows NT server outperforms Linux”. It then emerged that Mindcraft had been commissioned by Microsoft to carry out the study – the first, but not the last time it would adopt this tactic. A fierce argument between Mindcraft and the open source community ensued about whether the tests had been fair, and how to make them fairer.

In fact, the end results of the re-run was not completely favorable to GNU/Linux, but something rather interesting happened. The open source community took the failures and used them to improve GNU/Linux to the point where it was indeed more powerful than Windows. By finding and drawing attention to free software's weak spots, Microsoft actually made it stronger.

2001: It's not very nice

In the face of the Mindcraft fiasco, and the growing strength of GNU/Linux, Microsoft changed tack. Steve Ballmer was wheeled out to bad-mouth the opposition, as only he can. In 2000, he said: “Linux sort of springs organically from the earth. And it had, you know, the characteristics of communism that people love so very, very much about it.” In 2001, talking to the Chicago Sun-Times, he expressed himself even more forcefully: “Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches.”

Powerful stuff. Unfortunately for the FUDmeisters at Microsoft, this kind of name-calling didn't go down too well with its intended audience. Even Microsoft's own research showed this, as revealed in one of the entertaining Halloween memos leaked to Eric Raymond.

2002: It's not very cheap

Once again, a massive change of tactics was required. Having failed to convince people that free software was either broken or bad, Microsoft decided to “prove” that it actually cost more to use than Windows – the famous TCO, or Total Cost of Ownership, studies. To achieve this, it drew on the “facts” to be found in a number of white papers from various analysts, all of which, by an amazing coincidence, came up with the result that running GNU/Linux was indeed more expensive than using Windows.

But it didn't take long for this story to unravel like all the others. First, it was not always clear whether Microsoft had commissioned the white papers that it liked to cite, or whether they were truly independent. This naturally tended to cast doubts on even those that were produced without Microsoft's input. Just as seriously, the TCO methodologies were often completely valueless, involving estimates of costs several years into the future, or the results were presented in a skewed fashion. When this became clear, people felt that they were being duped by Microsoft, and tended to discount the whole exercise.

The final nail in the coffin of this ironically-named “Get The Facts” campaign from Microsoft is the recent appearance of yet another white paper, which provided cast-iron evidence that GNU/Linux's TCO was actually better than that of Windows (well, as cast-iron as any of these white papers ever are). It is no coincidence that this one was not commissioned by Microsoft, but by the Open Source Development Labs, who were showing that they could fight fire with fire.

2003: It's not legal 1.0

Since GNU/Linux could not be bested either technologically, morally or economically, Microsoft was forced to resort to the law. It chose to provide both direct and indirect support to SCO at a time when the latter had brought a lawsuit against IBM that – purely coincidentally – had begun to sow doubt in the minds of some people about the legality of the code in GNU/Linux.

In many ways, this was the perfect FUD, since it didn't even originate from Microsoft. But to the company's chagrin, the SCO case has gone nowhere. All the bluster at the beginning has evaporated, leaving behind some increasingly annoyed judges.

2006: It's not legal 2.0

Since the indirect legal FUD failed, Microsoft has taken the last, desperate option it has available: to begin direct legal FUD. Hence Ballmer's cunningly veiled threats: he's not saying Microsoft will sue somebody in the GNU/Linux world over possible violations of intellectual property, it's just something that, well, he owes it to his shareholders (like Bill Gates and himself, presumably) to consider. But if Microsoft's track-record in the FUD stakes is anything to go by, it's not going to work – not least because it will pit Microsoft's Goliath against the David of GNU/Linux, in front of a crowd that always roots for the underdog.

Ballmer's comments do indicate, however, that Microsoft has reached the end-game as far as FUD is concerned. After patents, there is nothing it hasn't already tried. So what will Microsoft do then? Simple: lose.

Glyn Moody writes about open source at opendotdotdot

» Read more about: Story Type: LXer Features; Groups: Microsoft

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Subject Topic Starter Replies Views Last Post
Get the fudge. fudger 2 4,523 Jun 17, 2007 10:10 AM
friend s_powere1000 0 4,935 May 28, 2006 7:43 PM
Ballmer : "There's no innovation out of linux" henke54 2 5,707 May 11, 2006 2:34 AM
LOSE LOSE LOSE trappix 4 6,287 Mar 31, 2006 5:16 AM
The Gandhi way Erik_Andren 2 6,495 Mar 30, 2006 12:22 PM
You're getting acknoweldged for unbias reporting? tadelste 1 6,001 Mar 30, 2006 11:41 AM
Hey, quit picking on Microsoft. TaranRampersad 0 6,546 Mar 30, 2006 11:36 AM
great article jsusanka 6 6,187 Mar 30, 2006 5:07 AM
800 pound gorilla highserv 2 6,406 Mar 29, 2006 7:26 AM

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