I was sitting about thinking the other day about why Microsoft are so underhand on occasion when talking about Linux and other open-source software. (I’m thinking here of things like an advert that claimed running Windows on a thousand-dollar standard PC was cheaper than running Linux on a several thousand-dollar mainframe. Whilst true, you might as well say that buying Word is cheaper than hiring a full time secretary to type your letters. They’re completely different things.)
The obvious conclusion is that Linux threatens their core business because it eats into sales of Windows, their main profit maker along with Office. Having a competitor start to bite into your core market after years of comfortable non-competition is enough to get any company worried. However, I don’t think this is the main reason the campaign is so viciously fought.
I’m sure that everyone has figured this one already, but it only just hit home for me. Microsoft’s main profit maker is Windows, as I just said. Linux is making inroads into this market. The main problem, however, is that Linux represents the beginnings of the commoditisation of the operating system. This is a far more deep and difficult problem for Microsoft. Commodity products do not generate large profit margins. If operating systems did become commodity, profits on Windows are suddenly slashed. Bad news for MS.
Therefore Microsoft have to somehow convince the world that an operating system is not a commodity item. The adverts that make out that Linux is far from as mature and reliable as Windows help to reinforce the idea that Microsoft are making a value proposition with their product: you can have a “free” option, or a reliable one.
With many open and free operating systems before Linux (and BSD) this was indeed the case. A proprietary system was more mature and reliable. Now, however, the story is different. Linux has proven itself to be very mature and reliable. More reliable, in fact, than Windows (given knowledgeable sys-admins, of course).
This is a problem for Microsoft. Linux allows companies to build useful services on top of it and charge for these services, rather than for the operating system. The operating system is a commodity item in this new service-based system. Microsoft do not build services, they build the tools to allow other to build services and solutions. With Linux, many of these tools are free to anyone who wants to use them, including the operating system itself. If you can get tools of equivalent quality for free and build on top of them, why pay Microsoft for their versions of the tools?
It is this underlying, hidden problem that I think is leading Microsoft down ever more dubious alleyways in their attempt to discredit Linux. More than market share is at stake: the market itself is at stake.