Fear of the Dark

[ Saturday, 22 December 2007, Keyto ]

Do you know why do I admire Microsoft’s marketing whizzes? They made a deity out of their corporation. No, seriously. No figurative speech. Not a metaphor nor a parallel. Those nameless heroes did it literally.

How does an average Joe perceive Microsoft? As an almighty, omnipotent, omnipresent, personified creation from which one cannot flee, which dominates the economy and is “-est” at everything. The sheer destiny that controls our fate. It would for example solve the problem of wars on Earth, the problem of global warming or make contact with aliens… if it only wished so but who shall understand the gods? As far as I recall the (for example) Greek mythology the Olympic gods were not so mighty. Well – not every one of them. First of all they happened to be mortal, they could be tricked, bribed or persuaded to change sides. The masses, however, see Microsoft as something much bigger. Greek equivalent of Microsoft could have been… Zeus perhaps but well, if you are familiar with the rank Zeus had in the Olympic pantheon…

Enough fairy-tales. Instead of succumbing to mythomania let’s “Get the Facts”, as The Great Microsoft itself suggests. Let me quote an exchange of comments that appeared on this vortal recently (in fragments and not quoted precisely since that is not what it is about) because it will help me with further deliberations.

- “Show Us The Code” was a purely social initiative while there are some big corporations behind OIN directly. Of course, this does not guarantee anything still it raises the significance of the challenge (the corporations in question were: IBM, NEC, Novell, Philips, Red Hat and Sony).
- Hey, big ones? MS would have bought them for its budget for refreshment drinks for the staff.
- It would not. Just IBM and Sony added up are bigger then Microsoft and there are more big corporations. Because of that Linux is condemned to success which has been apparent for 4 years.

Perhaps the author’s intention was to be ironic but otherwise – and that is the way I and probably quite a few people consider it – the matter is quite serious. So how is it with the financial omnipotence of Bill’s and Steve’s company? (Gates’ and Ballmer’s of course).

Get the Facts.

How does this case appear to an average Joe like me? I am not really into economics or the stock market or “Big Business” in general. However, I know my stuff about computers, I am connected to the Internet and I will try to come to an opinion to the best of my abilities. Yes, ladies and gentlemen. The fundamental problem is: On what basis people claim that Microsoft is able to buy all the Big Companies from the IT sector for “its refreshment drinks budget”. Well… so they say… that is common knowledge, right?

I, however, will try to verify that for myself and I am giving myself 15 minutes to do that. Let’s get to work. I fire up a browser and type “Microsoft” on Wikipedia’s homepage. What do we have here… Microsoft Corporation… listed on NASDAQ… headquarters in Redmond, Washington… 79 000 employees… yeah… There is something about the cash! Wikipedia’s data are more or less current and usually regard the last or next to the last year. Microsoft’s revenue is estimated at 51.12 billion dollars as of 2007. Okay, that is a starting point. I am aware that revenue is something different from total wealth (please consider this to be a joke) but it should serve me well as an indicator of company’s market position.

Let’s have a look at the revenue of other companies.

  • Red Hat – 0.278 billion USD,
  • Novell – 1.2 billion USD,

Nothing really striking but it is getting more interesting:

  • Google – 10.604 billion USD,
  • Lenovo – 13.0 billion USD,
  • Sun Microsystems – 13.873 billion USD,
  • ORACLE – 17.996 billion USD,
  • Apple Inc. 19.3 billion USD,
  • Dell – 55.908 billion USD,
  • Sony – 70.303 billion USD,
  • IBM – 91.4 billion USD,
  • HP – 91.7 billion USD,

I do not know what fraction of income Microsoft spends on investments but while buying out Red Hat seems to be within its capabilities, Google would be a serious problem I guess. By the way, 11 billion of revenue confronted with a browser gives… 3.077 billion of net income. Oh well, as for the income. Microsoft’s net income in the same period of time estimates at 14.06 billion dollars. No matter how you look at it that is over 27% of the revenue. IBM on the other hand had net income of 9.4 billion dollars what gives a little more than 10% of the revenue. Apparently less but they are actually manufacturing something. They are busy with production, innovative technologies and investments, let’s say. Microsoft on the other hand is just a money-making machine in that approach, please consider it just a curiosity. Back to our considerations it is undoubtedly true that “just IBM and Sony added up are bigger then Microsoft” since we have the premises to think that both IBM and Sony are bigger than Microsoft. Kidding. Let me stress this again: it is not about any studies, not even amateurish ones. The problem regards an average Joe the IT specialist who would like to see something real rather than just follow an exchange of myth-burdened opinions. What is more, comparing the revenue of given companies does not tell us how many dollars are on Bill’s and Steve’s private accounts. Do not forget that Mr. Larry Ellison, Michael Dell or Eric Schmidt have bank accounts as well.

OK. These deliberations could be carried on much longer but the said 15 minutes are over so I am not looking any further. I have searched the Internet on my own and it seems that Microsoft is just a company. Powerful but finite, with numerable financial index numbers which do not indicate that Microsoft is the biggest corporation in the world. It is a corporation which can lose a court case, which board of directors can make mistakes since it consists just of mortal humans. A company that manufactures products, chiefly software. Software that may be not of top quality but it is certainly not programming gibberish, too. Software that in the end works quite efficiently and reliably.

But facts are facts and opinions are just opinions. No matter what would you read it seems that Microsoft is able of nearly everything while any Linux fan-boy keeps track of its wrongdoings in case it attacks out of the blue. Am I exaggerating? If we browse through the articles and comments on this vortal alone it is apparent that substantial statements regarding characteristics, features or architectural differences between products from Windows family and GNU/Linux are burdened by entries on how Microsoft sues this or that one. How Microsoft counts the number of patent infringements. How Microsoft attacks with FUD. Let me stress that these are very emotional entries. Just following the actions of the competition is normal, here however, the lowest common denominator seems to be:

Fear of the dark

Psychology tells us that there is an inner child within every adult. In between the lines of IT articles the child is clearly visible. We are apparently having fun. We have our favorite toy, our dear, colorful, plush Linux. But the dark night shall come and evil Steve will take our wonderful OS away, right in front of us all! Or even worse! He will force us to remove it from our PCs and replace it with Windows. He will take our savings as well, as a payment for Windows and a penalty for using Linux and instead of a colorful world of dreams there will be gray and bleak reality. A nightmare indeed! What is particularly interesting is that we drive ourselves in that state of mind. As a matter of fact it is not that bad. Because:

What can Microsoft really do?

In short – it can delay the domination of GNU/Linux on the market and nothing more. I have no idea how much time will that take. Five, fifteen, fifty years? Microsoft’s “actions” are bothersome, however, it does not change the fact that GNU/Linux is generally favored by the Big Business. Have a look around: supercomputers, film industry, academic circles, WWW servers, embedded systems, Dell, Lenovo or IBM’s actions. GNU/Linux (I am referring here more to the phenomenon rather than to a particular product) is ubiquitous and used commonly by companies which could paradoxically afford a commercial solution (Google for example). Why is that so? I do not intend to elaborate on the advantages of the open source model. I recommend essays by Eric Reymond who has already done that factually and accurately. (“Homesteading the Noosphere”, “The Magic Cauldron”, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”, “A Brief History of Hackerdom”.) You will find there pointers if not answers why Business stakes on GNU/Linux.

Now, within the framework of the deliberations on the power of money and considering the fact that this article is written in a semi-serious style, let’s ponder if Microsoft will really buy out Red Hat. (Since I have stated that this is within its financial capabilities.)
These are some possible yet simple scenarios:

  1. Microsoft does not touch Red Hat – we are glad. The party goes on.
  2. Microsoft buys out Red Hat and destroys it. This causes an uproar but at the same time everyone senses what is it all about. Why would Microsoft destroy “little” Red Hat? Because it was a threat to its business model. Because GNU/Linux is probably better so the entire competition moves to SLED (by Novell) and the party goes on.
  3. Microsoft buys out Red Hat and sells it as Microsoft/GNU/Linux Professional (R). Well, if even Microsoft does that everyone moves to GNU/Linux and there is heaven on Earth and Steve buys candies for all the children and becomes an universally popular guy.
  4. Microsoft undermines Red Hat’s position, applies FUD, vendor lock-in and other professional yet ethically questionable marketing techniques. Oh, wait… This is actually not a tale, this is reality. But…

Let’s have a look at Microsoft’s favorite law suits. Okay. Let’s imagine that Microsoft sues Debian, for example. Yes, but… Debian meaning who exactly? A lawsuit, regardless of the law system in question has to be lodged against a specific entity in a particular country. Where? In the USA? In Poland? France? Certainly, you can sue IBM Inc. located in Armonk, New York for an illegitimate use of a given patent or Sun Microsystems located in Santa Clara, California for a violation of a copyright but what about an international community?
Well, you can sue a particular project. Right, but GNU/Linux is polymorphic, each element of the system has several “forms”. Several window managers, multimedia applications, web browsers, APIs. Even Linux kernel in some distributions is replaced with i.e OpenSolaris kernel. You might say that the propagation of Linux do not require Linux itself. In case of suing any project it can be replaced with another. In case of suing more projects the other ones can be improved or written from a scratch. These are not assumptions. These are simple conclusions from dozens of years of GNU/Linux history. Reymond’s essays were not written yesterday, too. And the data used for my home-bred financial comparison of the particular Big Business representatives are commonly available. A quote by Lem comes to mind: “90% of people do not read, out of those who read 90% do not understand, out of those who understand 90% forget”.


I would like to sum up with three thoughts.

First of all, let’s not lapse into paranoia. Microsoft is just a company. A big one, which has most of the PC software market and that is a fact. But not omnipresent. Let’s approach it “normally” then. Let’s observe it, explain consequently our arguments when there is a need for it and stay cool. And let’s not overreact on every provocation.

Microsoft is just spreading FUD. Quite often we also play that game and consequently make it grow. Am I exaggerating? How many times did Steve Ballmer made groundless accusations against “Linux”? Meaning: what did he accuse? Of what? And whom? I do not know, yet after each such action the servers are overfilled with comments from nervous Linux users. And so it spreads around the world that something is going on and that it will probably transform into some kind of action if the CEO of Microsoft says so. Evidently nothing happens, however a legend grows around the slanders, a legend that was partially brought up by us. And Steve is undoubtedly happy about it.

In the third place, it is high time to notice that there are already a few hundred thousand (and counting) of us – GNU/Linux users even though Windows is still installed on the majority of PCs. We are a force that is not to be underestimated.

We, users and well-wishers of GNU/Linux, have two paths to choose from: either we continue to remain in an unfounded fear of IT giants nervously following their actions and carrying on fruitless xenophobic discussions within our hermetic fellowships, being aggressive against anyone of different beliefs OR…

we can do our part. We can share the news and opinions on the Free Software, broaden our knowledge, help beginners, work on things that we are actually interested in that is GNU/Linux rather then marketing corporate actions, all that with inner conviction that we are a part of the force that pushes the contemporary IT world forward.

About the Author


Keyto is a computer engineer living in Poland. In free time he likes to write longish stories about GNU, Linux and its users :)

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