Will Microsoft Endure? Ex-Employee Presents Good Reasons It Won’t

Every time I see a Linux fanatic go on about how one day Linux, or free software in general, will rule, I think, yes, that would be nice; then I chuckle. It’s a nervous chuckle of sorts, as I certainly wish it would come true, but I simply can’t see it happening any time soon.

A book penned by a long time Microsoft programmer gives more reason than ever to believe it may come true in my lifetime. Keith Curtis speaks about the logic of open software, and we have all heard it, and bow to the idea. If software is open, and free, the very best ideas will get incorporated, without problems, because no one will be against the improvement, for reasons of pride or greed.

In an article over at ComputerWorld, Curtis is seen to give the main reasons for the problems with Microsoft in specific, and closed source software in general.

The mantra Curtis repeats throughout his book “After the Software Wars”: proprietary software is holding us back as a society.

In the book, Curtis says that while proprietary software made Microsoft one of the most successful companies of all time, it’s a model destined to fail because it doesn’t let software programmers cooperate and contribute, and thus stifles innovation.

Curtis did programming work on Windows, Office and research at Microsoft and never actually used Linux, he says, until he quit his job in late 2004. The ensuing years have made him a Linux fanatic, and he is convinced that free, open-source software is technically superior. As long as Microsoft and its proprietary model dominate, Curtis says, we will live in “the dark ages of computing.”

In an interview with CIO.com’s Shane O’Neill, Curtis discusses the rise of free software, Linux’s role in what he calls the inevitable fall of software’s biggest giant and … robot-driven cars.

Though I’m not certain about robot driven cars, I am certain of his other views. I only wonder why we have not seen more adoption of free, and open source software. I know that a certain amount is due to fear, spread by Microsoft and other companies, who insist that if software is open, anyone will be able to look at the code and explore the cracks.

That is true, of course, but it is also the greatest strength of open source, and it seems that many don’t see that. If a certain piece of software has bugs to exploit, they will be seen, fixed, and everyone will be on to the next job quickly, whereas with typical closed source, it takes time to act, and those who own the software frequently don’t let you know about the problem, until the repair has been made.

Joe Average doesn’t see that the ‘bad guys’ don’t operate at the same level as he does, and they have been aware of the problem for much longer, and can exploit Joe’s system before Joe has even one clue that there is a problem. If Joe had been using open source, no egos are there to cause a lack of open communication, so that, though a response to fix may be forthcoming, right now there is knowledge of how to mitigate the problem.

In what ways will free software be Microsoft’s undoing?

Free software will lead to the demise of Microsoft as we know it in two ways.

First, the free software community is producing technically superior products through an open, collaborative development model. People think of Wikipedia as an encyclopedia, and not primarily software, but it is an excellent case study of this coming revolution.

There are also many pieces of free software that have demonstrated technical superiority to their proprietary counterparts. Firefox is widely regarded by Web developers as superior to Internet Explorer. The Linux kernel runs everything from cell phones to supercomputers. Even Apple threw away their proprietary kernel and replaced it with a free one.

Second, free software undermines Microsoft’s profit margins. Even if Microsoft were to adopt Linux – a thought experiment I consider in the afterword of my book – their current business model would be threatened. There are many ways for hardware and service companies to make money using free software, but these are not Microsoft’s sources of revenues.

The article also points out that the very smallest devices we have today run on the Linux kernel, and the very largest ones do too (supercomputers, large server farms, etc.).  It is only the middle ground, of the desk, that is not completely dominated by Linux.

Linux and other free software are already doing well in markets other than the desktop. Google has hundreds of thousands of machines running Linux. Free software is well on its way to conquering the small and the large, and the remaining challenge is the desktop in the middle.

The desktop is a particularly hard problem, but Linux is very close and is advancing at a fast pace. The move to the Web has also undermined Microsoft’s position, as the most popular application on a computer is a Web browser, and Firefox ably meets those needs.

The second most popular usage is for productivity applications, and while OpenOffice still needs some work, it is good enough for perhaps 99 percent of users. I worked on text engines for five years at Microsoft and wrote my book using OpenOffice.

I don’t know when Linux will become 10 percent or 25 percent of the desktop market. Some said Linux would take over 10 years ago, and while that was premature, it is close now. Part of my book is a message to the computer industry discussing the remaining challenges.

Perhaps this is not only fear, but also inertia.

Inertia keeps us from doing many things as we get older, mainly because we feel there isn’t time to learn something new, or perhaps that it will be wasted effort. One only has to look at Microsoft’s latest efforts, and it becomes apparent that they are through fighting, except superficially, and have already begun the switch. Under the graphics, Windows gets more and more Unix-like with each iteration. (if you don’t believe, take a look at the basic directory structure, and how it has changed from Windows 2000, through Windows 7).

So, though you might never change completely, learning about that ‘other’ operating system could be the very best thing you do in the next few years. If all goes as Mr. Curtis states, it would be very wise indeed.


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