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Storming the Microsoft Edifice

by Sam Hiser, coauthor of Exploring the JDS Linux Desktop
10/14/2004

Author's note: In a recent LinuxWorld Magazine article, entitled "The Power of Mozilla Firefox and OpenOffice on Windows," I observed some of the causes and practical implications of market share gains being made by these two important open source applications. Equally alluring are the strategic implications, which may conjure images of a few heroic Englishmen in pursuit of the Holy Grail--way back in the 1970s.

Firefox and OpenOffice.org are tactical assets in the battle for the wider use of open software standards. Installed on Windows, they are shining examples of open protocols, features, and formats placed onto the closed desktop. There, they provide at once an introductory example of open source software quality and a bridge to complete desktop migration.

However, these are not the reasons for adoption that Windows users speak about. They do not often talk about open software standards or a healthier network ecosystem. Pragmatic Windows users welcome Firefox and OpenOffice.org onto their desktops because the applications help them save money and because they bring much needed browser security and greater file format flexibility. In this sense, our favorite open source desktop apps are an inverse poison pill--a shot of health in a fouled environment. I wonder if it's fair to say that they trick hapless Windows users into deploying infrastructure that is healthier in both individual and aggregate use. Windows users will say about Firefox, for example, "Tastes great!" What we among the open source cognoscenti hear, though, is really, "Less filling."

The Analogy

There's a telling sketch in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail that takes off on the myth of the sacking of Troy from Homer's Iliad. The Pythons remain true in outline to the well-known tale of the Trojan horse, but they mix it up with an assortment of English nationalist foundation mythology from Milton, Mallory, and Spenser and ultimately subvert the myth with a bit of human error.

In the Iliad, the Greeks drop off a great wooden horse at the gates of Troy before pretending to turn their ships for home. The Trojans accept the statue as a peace offering and wheel it within the city gates. Then, by night, Odysseus, Menelaus, and a group of Greek special forces leap out, set diversionary fires, and open the gates of Troy to the awaiting Greek armies. This clever trick summarily ends a historic ten-year siege in favor of the Greeks. Trust me, it's a classic.

Sir Bedevere overlooks a detail.

Here, the Pythons have surpassed Homer--on any terms you may care to establish.

The Python movie represents an amusing contrast. In it, a few-odd knights of the Round Table are, for some unquestioned reason, trying to sack a Norman (French) castle. Sir Bedevere delivers on a plan. As the French castle guards wheel his construction of a large, hollow wooden rabbit inside their battlements, Bedevere explains his cunning objective (see sidebar).

Firefox and OpenOffice.org are, sure enough, our own "Trojan rabbit," sent into the Windows courtyard with passive but ostensibly lethal intent. (Is then Linus our King Arthur, Bruce Perens perhaps our Bedevere? Would Lessig or Moglen be clicking the coconuts?)

storming the Microsoft edifice
Figure 1. Storming the Microsoft edifice

With respect to Firefox and OpenOffice.org--and keeping in high Python style--you could say, "Hopefully, Microsoft won't notice." However, that's impossible because the stakes are so high. While Windows users may find these applications innocuous and even welcome--and they do--Microsoft itself wishes to construct a version of Windows that would reject them like an organ transplant patient rejects a foreign heart, kidney, or liver; or like the Python's Frenchmen, catapult the rabbit over the rampart walls.

or outsmarting ourselves?
Figure 2. Or outsmarting ourselves?

The battle for open operating systems and application standards is pitched in the Windows camp. We can build open source alternatives to anything Microsoft can deliver, even making vast improvements on its products and features and innovate in ways its business model cannot possibly accommodate. The general evolution toward open standards ultimately depends upon the individuals and organizations who use Windows to surmount their own inertia and accept the new ways as their own.

This prompts the question, What are we overlooking? Does the adoption of open source applications on Windows depend upon Windows users discerning the quality of software for themselves? Isn't this is a catch-22? After all, isn't the notion of a self-sufficient Windows user ridiculous in open source circles? Is it correct to assume that Windows users are helpless as lambs, waiting for a new shrink-wrapped version of the next software to make all the decisions for them, to make life more livable?

the users are in control
Figure 3. The users are in control

We underestimate the competence and the self-determinism of Windows users at our own peril. They, the users, are in charge. Microsoft's chief innovation (not a technological one, mind you) was coming to this realization as early as the 1980s. Sun Microsystems, for example, seems to have learned the hard way, only sometime after 9/11. At Sun's nadir following the burst of the dot-com bubble, the company--at the cost of survival, and having turned over senior management quite thoroughly--began to listen more effectively to what the markets had to say. Now Sun has broken out of the high end to successfully deliver nearly end-to-end software suites on both Solaris and GNU/Linux on the commodity x86 hardware platform. This includes its successful reemergence in servers on AMD Opteron.

Related Reading

Exploring the JDS Linux Desktop
By Tom Adelstein, Sam Hiser

IBM, as another example, entered the GNU/Linux market only because its customers insisted. Now IBM are nearly synonymous with open source (whether it deserves to be or not).

Despite the availability of enterprise-grade open source desktop and server products, and the ready availability of premium support, it simply will take Windows users--particularly those in large, managed environments--some time to slough off legacy habits and organizational structures, and adjust to the new paradigm. Equally, it takes large, established software vendors with deep and ongoing relationships to configure open source tools into products that large organizations find useful.

We need to appreciate that desktop Linux migration will be a slower process and brace for the desktop's grassroots penetration. After all, enterprises do not see in the desktop the golden hardware arbitrage they mined by swapping out RISC Unix (Red Hat's euphemism for the expensive Solaris on SPARC) for GNU/Linux on x86. This is why less disruptive transitional solutions such as placing open source applications on the Windows desktop can achieve so much. Rather than storming the castle, we are sowing the seeds of a better environment outside it, where in green pastures we will someday build our own castle. (We do need to sow more quickly while, for example, Longhorn is still a gleam in its father's eye!)

Message to Windows Users

Firefox on Windows is important because, with gradual penetration, it takes away Microsoft's ability to dictate web protocols and foster web pages that are accessible only with Microsoft's browser, Internet Explorer. Likewise, having an open source office suite running on Windows--which produces files in a universally accessible file format, including those of Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint--gives the Windows user a refreshing relief from forced application upgrades and a welcome access to open, customizable and nonobsolescent APIs.

These are factors of importance, incidental systematic benefits rather than motivation. The pressing reason you want Firefox on your Windows system is to gain security and privacy where you had none before from malware: viruses, spyware, and spam. The compelling reason you want OpenOffice.org on your Windows system is to save the several hundred dollars that you would pay today to license yet another version of Microsoft Office, and the several hundred dollars you would pay again and again over the future life of your PC to upgrade Office so that you could continue to read the work of your friends and colleagues.

subversion itself on the drawing board
Figure 4. Subversion itself on the drawing board

Open Apps Facilitate Choice

The motivation to migrate to these two critical commodity applications is the same for enterprises as it is for individuals. An additional benefit to enterprises, with their complex supported environments, is the flexibility Firefox and OpenOffice.org present. Many large-scale open source migrations, even partial ones, will take place over months and even years. Rarely will a large company simply shut down for three days to swap out its systems. Never happens. Migration depends on users, and best practices dictate business unit autonomy: Finance may take longer than Marketing, for example.

Firefox and OpenOffice.org foster tailored coexistence strategies. Companies can partially migrate to GNU/Linux while standardizing on a single, platform-agnostic universal browser (Firefox) across the global organization; likewise, the office suite. (Mozilla and OpenOffice.org support many more user interface languages than Microsoft does. See The Economist Technology Quarterly, December 4, 2003, "Open Source's Local Heroes.")

Companies deploying the OpenOffice.org suite across all desktops can elect for employees to save their work by default in either the Microsoft Office file formats (.doc, .xls, or .ppt) for convenience or in the OpenOffice.org.org open XML file formats (.sxw, .sxc, or .sxi) for additional and exciting benefits to web services and web searchability on potentially all textual content in the document file stores. Take your pick.

Conclusion

These days, Microsoft is an uninteresting subject--even as an adversary. The company is past its menacing best, its methods thoroughly smoked, and its technology a source of embarrassment within knowledgeable circles. (It's possible to see the delay of WinFS, for instance, as the market's referendum on and rejection of Bill Gates' personal Holy Grail and Microsoft's narcissistic modus operandi.) However, the disposition of Windows users is a subject worthy of obsession, their hospitality toward open source solutions an intriguing tactical development to watch.

Now that the leading open source browser and office suite have blooming qualities that attract Windows users in swarms, we need not actually storm the Microsoft edifice. The ripe conditions for wider penetration of open software standards--those represented by Firefox and OpenOffice.org--continue to formulate before our eyes. Persistence in selling through the open source value proposition is surely a must. In a Windows world, though, moderation and a having a good ear for the markets will have untold benefits as the Microsoft era itself passes into the realm of myth.

Sam Hiser is Vice President & Director Business Affairs at the OpenDocument Foundation, Inc. He was advisor to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Information Technology Division on its pilot of OpenDocument-ready software this year. Hiser also blogs at www.PlexNex.com.


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