Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Fri 5th Jun, 2009

What we owe Microsoft

Strangely, over the last month or two I've had a couple of people pose the idea to me that the computer industry should be thankful to Microsoft for producing Windows. One person stated that they keep us computer support people in a job; the other said that Microsoft's development of Windows was such an outstanding achievement that we should allow them to dictate how we use our computers and how other software companies interface with Windows. I've tried to debate rationally about these issues, given that us people who use Free Open Source Software see them as akin to chocolate on a fishing hook with a shotgun aimed at it - they're bait, and when you take it you're going to end up hurt, but all the same... it's chocolate...

Let's start by saying that these arguments, to me, make no sense. Microsoft is a convicted criminal, an abusive monopoly that has lied, cheated, bankrupted, threatened, bullied and undermined its way to the top by killing off competition wherever it could. It's done all this not because they want to improve things for the users - although they've said this, that's why they're liars - but simply to maximise profits. It's obvious from everything they do that they see themselves as the 400-kilo alpha male silverback gorilla in the software industry, and that they should be able to do whatever they like with no justification. You can and they do, of course, attach justification to everything but it's merely the covering on a deeply abusive relationship. Saying that we owe them anything is like saying people deserve to be raped - it's literally unthinkable to me.

On the other hand, the people that have espoused this "thank you Microsoft" point of view have valid points, so it always seems like it's worth trying to examine them rationally. For example: yes, Microsoft is not the only company to do naughty things to competitors and even the alleged friend of us FOSS zealots - Google - is at base a company for making money. Yes, we all hold the dream of having an invention that changes the world and being recognised for it. Yes, standards are a good thing and having a unified desktop has helped developers create software in a way that having many competing operating systems would make difficult. Yes, Ford doesn't 'need' to consult its competitors or manufacturers of after-market accessories for their products if they want to change some detail of how their car is designed.

There are two problems with all of these things. Firstly, they're superficial - the comparison breaks down if you follow the analogy through. Ford doesn't need to consult its competitors explicitly because it already does implicitly - Ford knows that it has to offer competitive features or be left behind. Just because Google puts prices on ads and puts them in our faces and does deals with companies for where their listing is going to sit in various searches doesn't justify Microsoft's behaviour. Ideas are not monopolies and should not imply a monopoly on their execution.

But, more fundamentally, the problems with all of these things is that they miss a fundamental point that Free Open Source Software people realised early on: collaboration works much much better than competition. We live in a community of people; we live in societies with shared goals and ideals, ethics and past-times. Many things in life are not zero-sum games, and to portray everything as a win-or-lose, black-or-white scenario is not just incorrect, sometimes it's actually a form of cheating.

This point was driven home to me this afternoon when, just after having come out of an hour-and-a-half debate with one such Microsoft apologist, I read this exchange and it made sense. You simply cannot compare software to the real world, and you simply cannot compare the entire FOSS suite - the work of tens of millions of people all over the world in every profession and every category - with any other physical entity. Trying to stick to the car analogy is pointless because we're using a car, given to us for free, built by a whole range of people, which contains every possible combination of driving performance, style, comfort and efficiency - simultaneously! For free! And I can give you exactly the same car with minimal effort, absolutely legally. There's literally no analogy to it.

My observation here is that the car analogy, and many of the other analogies that get used to describe software and how it works, suits people who still belive in the politics and economics of scarceity. From the perspective of these analogies, Free Open Source Software makes no sense because it doesn't fit in the analogy. Strangely the people espousing these points of view don't see this as a sign that their analogy is broken, they see it as a flaw in the reasoning for Free Open Source Software.

Let's make it clear: Free Open Source Software works on the four principles of freedom espoused by the Free Software Foundation. They allow you to get software, use it, fix it if it breaks and improve it if you can, and share those improvements with other people. The key point unstated there which I think the Microsoft apologists are missing is that all this works on a community of sharing. The four freedoms make sense for you as an individual, but they are absolutely no-brainer logical when you are part of a large community of people that can help eachother. Proprietary software's principles only make sense when you are an individual, without any connection to anyone else using the software but with only the connection to the software vendor. Even before the internet that was untrue; the internet merely made the processes of being in a community - communication, contribution, sharing and co-operation - available to an audience many orders of magnitude larger.

In the heat of the moment, though, I did think of one fundamental flaw in the car analogy that caused my interlocutor to reconsider his position. It would be a completely different thing for Ford to change the specifications of how after-market gadgets fit on their cars if Ford made 80% of the cars on the market and (most importantly) if the size of the after-market parts industry was ten to a hundred times the size of Ford's business. In that light it doesn't look like fair play to change their specs so that they can sell more brake-pads or steering wheel covers and everyone else has to go back to the drawing board for six months. But, since that breaks the analogy, it might not have made sense...

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