We’ve all seen Microsoft’s latest frenzy. They are accusing Linux, Open Office and other open source software of a massive patent infringement. “The numbers and locations of the alleged violations break down as follows: 42 violations within the Linux kernel itself, 65 within the “Linux GUI,” though the article doesn’t specify whether these infringements apply to one GUI or apply equally to all the Linux desktop environments. OpenOffice allegedly violates an additional 45 patents, e-mail programs infringe on another 15 patents, and an unspecified array of “other” OSS programs violate a further 68 patents.”, according to Ars Technica (view link above for complete article).
It’s too late for me to try to turn this post into news, this is relatively old. Yet this begs to ask a couple of questions:
Why are they not specifying the patents that are in breach? We know that Microsoft has patented everything from the Recycle Bin to the Double Click (yes Microsoft, I said “Recycle Bin”, sue me!). It almost seems like something out of science fiction that they were awarded these patents, but what’s done is done. Is that they know their patent claims are so ridiculous that no one would take them seriously? Is it that, even though I’m sure there are infringements, 235 is just a pretty number and they haven’t actually made the necessary research?
Why wait until this moment? These infringements are nothing new. What is so lovely of this time of year to bring it up? Was their legal team slacking and got assigned some new homework?
Why just make an announcement but take no real legal action? No official suits have been presented in court. Who will be sued? The Linux foundation? Open source companies? End users?
To find the answers to these questions one must analyze the recent history of Linux and some insight might just pop up.
First you have the lovely deal between Microsoft and Novell. According to the B.S. Steve Ballmer and Ronald Hovsepian the plan was to “their companies planned to work together to improve interoperability and increase the viability of enterprise virtualization technology”. What they tried to undertone in the announcement, but everyone focused on anyway, was “As part of the deal, the two companies created a controversial patent indemnification pact: both companies agreed not to sue each other’s customers”. Or more importantly, Microsoft would not sue Novell and it’s users. Novell made a pact with the Devil to avoid patent hell.
This has several implications. Microsoft is saying that while open source software is evil and a detriment to the industry, Novell has been awarded a “get out of jail free” card. This two sided blade continues to emphasize what they’ve said about open source all along. They also clearly reinforced their intentions of going after Linux users in the future. If not, why would this deal be important? At the very least scare Linux vendors into similar agreements.
Then you have the top U.S. desktop computer maker deciding to sell computers with Ubuntu Linux pre-installed. When a vendor like system76 it really doesn’t worry Microsoft. Hell, even Lenovo did it. But when the top computer seller in America makes this move, it will have serious repercussions. It all started with a project called IdeaStorm. It was a digg clone that Dell customers would use to tell the company what they wished for in new hardware, what they were unhappy about, how they could better their products and services. The folks at Dell were amazed when they got hundreds of thousands of petitions for open source office suite alternatives, firefox set as the default browser, and ship Linux preinstalled. Dell has had a recent history of very bad press. Ranging from the laptop battery scandal, to poor service for paying customers. Actually going through could be a way for them to get a bit of good publicity.
Now, I doubt this will be a best seller. They will probably sell some tens of thousands of computers with Linux. Let’s hope I’m mistaken and the number jumps to six figures. Microsoft is not worried that this will curb Vista sales. That won’t happen in a very, very long time. But it will raise awareness of Linux in the everyday mortals who don’t know better. It’s effect will be measured in the future, not the present.
You also need to take into context all of the litigation that has been in the press recently over online media trading. I’m not going to go into that right now. I actually wrote an article on it recently, not that it wasn’t an over covered subject anyway. Basically “free music” or “free movies” are being portrayed as evil. While they are convenient to you, they are adding to the collapse of the media industry as a whole. Your favorite artists will all be forced to stop producing media and get day jobs. The complete entertainment industry faces demise. Or at least that’s what they want you to think. But the important thing is that a concept is being induced into people’s minds. Something that isn’t a new concept, but is getting more traction these days: free is evil.
Of course they are referring to free as in beer (free of charge), as opposed to free as in speech (you are granted the liberty to remix and redistribute). There is a very fine distinction. Most products in the OSS spectrum are free as in beer, but the few that have a price tag attached to them don’t get their freedom revoked. Yet, as anyone working in advertising will probably suggest, since both concepts are expressed with the same word it’s easy to add your own little twists on top of the already massive ignorance and confusion.
Is Microsoft just using these patent infringement allegations to further shed shadow over the Linux community? I think so. There really is no plan to sue anyone. They just need to do something to hurt Linux on the public relations front. They have been getting too much light recently. This has to be stopped before the snowflake rolls into an avalanche! You know what Microsoft? This may just be a classic case of too little, too late.
Another day came by, I was minding my own business, reading the news on the net, and I bump into a very interesting article: Dell has a site with a very original concept called IdeaStorm. Users will post entries about ideas they think the company should undertake, and other users will digg [cough] vote on the previously posted ideas. The most popular ideas will make the front page where they will be viewed by most of the public. They have an ‘upcoming ideas’ section where the new ideas that are picking up traction are displayed as well.
Before I begin my rant, let me just salute Kevin Rose. If envy (and therefore imitation) is the sencerest form of admiration, then a lot of people admire you right now. Even though you will never see this, I congratulate you. You have a very cool concept, and all the people that are bluntly stealing it from you is proof that it rocks. Keep on fighting the good fight!
Moving forward, the concept can only benefit them at the moment. They had a very bad time with the exploding battery scandal. They are losing market share to HP (more on that below), apple’s recent innovation in operating system software and desktop/laptop hardware is stealing the light from everyone including Dell and they haven’t had the best publicity lately. This is a good way to get ideas from the community and cater back to them exactly what they want. Keep the consumer happy, after all, they represent your main source of revenue.
So I follow the link in the article, hop on to the page. First thing I notice, they have the most painless registration I have ever seen. Kudos to the folks at Dell for that! Second thing I notice, the top idea, devastating everything else with the sheer number of votes, is consumers requesting Dell to ship computers with Ubuntu, SUSE or Fedora pre-installed. A big smirk magically appeared on my face. After all, I was reading the story on my Dell laptop which is running the latest version of Ubuntu. I continue reading the other posts, and I noticed that every 2 or 3 idea posts was the same concept, with a slight variant or just plainly repeated. What were they all clamoring for? Choice. With choice comes what they consider a better operating system, with a cheaper bottom line. After all Ubuntu and other Linux distros are offered free of charge. Red Hat and others are offered far cheaper than their Windows counterparts.
As A Linux user and Dell laptop owner, this is music to my ears. Despite Ubuntu having a very good driver repository (just about everything in my laptop is supported expect my dialup modem), I would love for it to come pre-installed. I would have support in my operating system (no support representative telling to press the ‘start’ button, and then telling me he can’t help me if i’m not running windows), I would have all the necessary, optimized drivers for all my components, I wouldn’t have to pay Microsoft a tax for using my computer.
So what’s wrong? Remember earlier when I said that HP has taken market share from Dell in the PC market? It was achieved, but at a price. They reduced their earnings even more, to make their products more cost competitive with Dell’s, which gave them more market but less earnings. More market, less money. This could be argued as a good long term move, but that’s beside the pont. And PC margins are already razor thin to begin with. Dell really can’t afford to reduce their margins more than they already are.
One of the key elements that helps keep the margins on the positive side of the balance is software sales, and promotional demos or pre-installed junk. You have to buy an OEM copy of windows weather you like it or not. That’s at least 100-150 dollars (I’m speculating, don’t know what the exact price for an OEM copy is). Plus all the huge AOL icon I see on my desktop when I first boot it up cannot be free publicity. Also keep in mind that Microsoft Office, and other software products are optional purchases that all can be pre-installed on your machine.
Why is this a problem? If they pre-install free software, they cannot make a margin on something that is free to begin with. Therefore that margin being made on the desktop/laptop as a whole just got smaller. That’s not good for business.
Ironically Dell, has had an “open source” line of computers for a while now, which has recently been expanded and renamed to the “N Series”. They come with no OS pre-installed, and a useless FreeDOS disk so that you may install the operating system of your choice. The assumption is that you will use it to install your favorite flavor of Linux in most cases. I read an interesting article where a dude configured a computer for purchase twice. They had the same hardware specifications, the only difference was that one was with the N Series option (No OS) and the ther with Windows Vista. The computer with no operating system costs 53 dollars more. Yes you read right, they are not providing an operating system, and the computer is actually more expensive. To me this is just insulting. Linux users are still on the geeky side of the spectrum of users. Therefore it’s probable that they will do their homework before making this kind of purchase, and just dismiss it.
Something else that caught my attention was the Ideas in Action page. This where they post the ideas that are taken and actually implemented in one way or another for the company. Linux is placed on the list. I was not at all surprised when I read that they were working with Red Hat and Novell in order to make this happen. They both offer for pay versions. I can probably anticipate with little uncertainty that the free version of Fedora or OpenSuse will not be among the available operating system options. Taking in consideration that one of the things that users want is to lower the bottom line of the machine, trading in one expense for another will not satisfy them. It can be argued that they cost less, therefore the bottom line will be lowered, but look at what they are doing without an operating system.
Another element that deserves consideration is technical support. Dell will have to train their current staff to support Linux environments or employ new staff members that will be providing this service. Keep in mind, since Linux can have a multitude of desktop environments an configurations, these support guys actually have to have a remote idea of what they are talking about. An idiot reading of a screen with troubleshooting instructions from a web application will not suffice anymore. More problems, less margin.
Drivers is another problem. Some of the hardware and peripherals they sell have windows-only drivers. Will they press the manufacturers to provide the missing drivers? Will they employ a team to develop the missing drivers themselves? Will they limit the linux sales to machine configurations with no problematic peripherals and hardware (say goodbye to the XPS line). Again, more problems, less margin.
I for one have promised that I will not spend another dollar on Microsoft products. Weather I keep my promise or not, only time will tell. I am a supporter of Linux and acknowledge it’s strong points above Microsoft’s offerings. As with everything else in life, a balance is maintained, so you will also find me admitting defeat in the areas where Microsoft triumphs over all other operating systems. I for one, am willing to pay the same for another operating system, but I am not the barometer that defines the market.
I’ve been faced with the following proposal one too many times: Just buy the machine with Vista, format the drive and install whatever you want. This is something I have already done. My current PC which originally came with XP installed is currently ‘Windowsless’. But this just results in paying Microsoft an unnecessary and unearned tax for using my computer. It’s simply stupid, and I will not do it again.
I am a fan of Dell. Have been for a while, and I was actually looking forward replacing my existing hardware with new Dell products when I got wind it would come pre-installed with Linux. Now, I am not so sure. Maybe paying for an overpriced MacBook is not such a bad idea after all. Who knows.
We have a new year, with it new experiences and opportunities are awaiting. This optimistic state when we are all gleeful is an excellent mindset to check out the new technologies which are presented every year at CES. For those of you who live under a rock, CES is one of the most important trade shows of the year. Thousands of companies display their new concept technology to thousands of journalists. The trend setters in each market generally give a keynote during the event, which will serve to give the rest of use some sense of direction as towards where their products and services will be headed in the near future. With our recent advancements in telecommunications, the average Joe can now participate in these events in real time, or with a couple of hours of delay.
Microsoft took the lead this year being the first company to lead in the series of keynotes. They generally have a big show, lead by the man, Mr. William Henry Gates himself, where something generates at least one BSoD before the show is over. The show all in all was not bad. No BSoD :(. There were some new “innovations” that seem fairly interesting, but I couldn’t help but be amazed at the section where they were announcing never before released, new and exciting details about Windows Vista. Justin Hutchinson, the gentleman which was responsible for this section of the presentation showed the public not only their advancements in technology, but their great efforts in research and development as well.
Now, keep in mind that Microsoft has been attacked relentlessly in the past for just buying out or shamelessly copying existing technologies or concepts and selling the in their name. There has been a joke going around for some time now that Apple is Microsoft’s R&D department. Never the less, I went into the presentation with out any biased expectations (or as little as possible). It is the optimist season of the year after all.
The first feature which was displayed was the start menu’s integrated search. Before long there was a small smile on my face. “They are finally making a practical search that works”, I thought. Sadly all good things must come to an end; this one much too abruptly. “If I just go in and type the first couple of letters of the item I’m looking for, Windows Vista will look across all my programs, websites I’ve visited, my files, my folders and even my email to bring me back the results I’m looking for…”, said Mr. Hutchinson. Then the strangely but unmistakable sensation of deja vu hit me. Wait, isn’t this just like the gnome deskbar? Which I have been personally using for quite some time now. Here is a snapshot of the ingenious start menu search followed by deskbar.
The presentation continued with the showing of the marvelous preview pane integrated into the file explorer. The preview pane basically let’s you see the contents of a file, without the need of invoking an application. The user doesn’t know that in fact his documents being read anyway, not by Microsoft Word, just by the file explorer, but in the name of instant gratifications little fibs like that can be told every now and then. Before I could start thinking of good uses for the this feature, there it was again. Just like when Neo saw the black cat for the second time in the Matrix. Hasn’t KDE’s Konqueror been offering this functionality for a couple of years? Here are pictures of Microsft and KDE’s respective offerings.
He continues with a story of how he mistakenly overwrote an important document. OK, it’s plausible. It’s happened to all of us at one time or another. “I made a mistake last night. I saved the wrong document. […] Making a mistake like this before Windows Vista would be a problem, but thanks to a new feature called Shadow Copy I can restore a previous version of this document with just a couple of clicks”. Hey, that is a good idea. It’s hard to imagine coding without a versioning system at this point. The organization and piece of mind it brings you is important. In a business world, a similar concept for office documents should be a good innovation. But wait, there’s a memory creeping in the back of my head. I’ve seen this before… somewhere… oh wait! This is just like one of the new features in the next version MacOS X, called Time Machine. Only it was thought up and announced months in advance.
I will admit that the features they are offering in the media center variant of the operating system look quite interesting. They don’t necessarily have revolutionary concepts, but they do have a very appealing look and feel to them. It doesn’t matter how good your product is. If it doesn’t have a good presentation, there is very little hope for you selling it. Doesn’t matter what google tells you.
I don’t even want to start talking about the striking and uncanny resemblance between windows live search and google earth.
They also developed a partnership with Ford that lets you control by voice mobile devices like cell phones and MP3 players utilizing bluetooth as the communication bridge. There are already navigation systems and other offerings which give you similar functionality. This is just a play by Ford to try to kick up it’s sales. It’s Japanese counterparts are kicking it’s ass on it’s own turf. Also these efforts seem minuscule when compared to advancements made by Lexus and BMW, each of which have self parking cars. This can eventually evolve into self driving cars. Maybe we are not as far from the future as we think.
Even if these concepts are just “similar” or in the end are intention blatant copies of it’s counterparts, the argument and/or it’s result will bring little fruit. Whatever it’s outcome will be, I would prefer on the positive side effects of these events:
- Microsoft is clearly building a software stack that will is rival to none. From the operating system, to the applications and right up with the on line services. This tight integration will give it’s users better and more reliable experiences.
- The vast majority of windows users are simply clueless. They use something when and if it is presented to them. They have no idea what are the developments in other products or operating systems. I have met a few that aren’t aware that Windows doesn’t need to be on a computer or that there are existing (and superior) alternatives. These enhancements to Windows will be received by open arms by it’s community simply because most of them don’t know any better.
- Many of these features are inherently integrated with window’s network capabilities. The “Digital Home” or the “Digital Decade” as Mr. Gates and others try to sell us, emphasizes on the ability of accessing your content where ever with whatever. Watching a movie on your Xbox, that’s on your computer, seeing photos on your TV that were taken by your cellphone. All with relative ease for the common mortal.
- Even though I’ve been on the other side of this argument many times, I know publicly admit defeat. There is nothing like Microsoft Office. There are many copies, a lot of them offer similar functionality. A lot of them can be used day in and day out, and will perfectly serve all your needs. Having said that, none of them come close to Microsoft’s.
In the end the combined voices of joy of the many will drown out the concerned pointing fingers of the few. The world will have it’s new Windows, the IT economy will get a an economic boost as a result of the avalanche of upgrades. This innovation will be the base that will drive other companies to give us better aplications, games, security, integration and hardware. All will be well, or will it?