Tangled Webs

    Linux Myths
Issue 4.15
Nov 19, 1999

Myths and Fiction

Microsoft has been walking a tightrope over Linux recently. In court, they have been trying desperately to convince judge Jackson that Linux represents a clear and present danger and is already eroding their market share. Outside of court, Microsoft is doing all they can to convince the public that Linux is not even a viable alternate to Windows. As part of this campaign, on October 4th, Microsoft published "Linux Myths" on their website. It can be downloaded at http://www.microsoft.com/ntserver/nts/news/msnw/LinuxMyths.asp.

The article caused a bit of a stir when it was released, but since there are very few people who understand both Linux and NT well, most commentary has been rather ill-informed, and the article has had a rather predictable effect. Members of the Microsoft camp are waiving it around as proof of Linux's inferiority, and members of the Linux community are writing it off as more output from the Microsoft propaganda machine.

To say that Linux Myths is biased is an understatement. It contains claims so deceiving that they would probably be illegal if made in the context of an advertisement. And I laughed out loud when I read the section on NT's superior security. However, the article contains some points the Linux community had better take very seriously if they wish to keep increasing user acceptance and market share.

Of course, this is not really the proper venue for a technical analysis of Microsoft's claims, and perhaps the fact that Microsoft considers Linux a big enough threat to campaign against it is more important than the claims made during such a campaign. One non-technical claim, however, stands out, and what Microsoft is calling a fundamental weaknesses strikes me as a significant strength.

The High Price of Free

In Linux Myths, Microsoft states "The very definition of Linux as an Open Software effort means that commercial companies like Red Hat will make money by charging for services. Therefore, commercial support services for Linux will be fee-based and will likely be priced at a premium."

Anyone who has ever had to call Microsoft technical support will likely find this claim to be disingenuous.

To get a simple technical question answered by Microsoft costs $245 and you will likely spend spend 15 minutes on hold. To get a complex technical problem solved can easily cost over $1,000, and prices are more than double here in Japan. To add insult to injury, these charges apply even when the problems were caused by defects in the software itself.

Microsoft emphatically denies that it makes any profit from customer support, and I have little reason to doubt this claim. However, it is interesting to note that almost all other software companies, including my own, manage to provide a far higher level of customer support at far lower prices. Or course, if any other company tried to charge such rates, their customers would go elsewhere. Such is the nature of the free-market.

There is only one real source for NT support, however, and that is Microsoft. They set the terms and the rates. If customers find the rates too high, they pay them anyway. Granted, there are plenty of consulting companies that support Microsoft products and which are far more responsive than Microsoft, but these companies have little or no independent knowledge of the products they support. Microsoft carefully controls and rations access to information and charges these support companies substantial fees for the privilege.

No More Secrets

So how will support for Linux be different? The most salient difference stems from the fact that Linux has no secrets. There is not, and can never be, a organization which controls information about Linux. The source code itself is open for all to see. Thus, the cost and quality of support will be determined solely through free-market competition, and that is almost always a huge win for the consumer.

Companies like RedHat and Caldera certainly know a great deal about the products they sell, but they do not have exclusive rights to them. Any company in the world can legally download their products from their websites and begin selling them. Microsoft's accusation is true. These companies will have to make their money by providing customer support. And if they do a poor job or try to charge too much, there are hundreds of other companies waiting to take their place.

Whether Microsoft actually sees greater consumer choice as a bad situation for the consumer or whether they are simply trying to muddy the waters is open to debate. This much is certain, however, in the Linux support and services industry there will be no barriers to entry, no rationing of information, and no way to lock customers into a single product.

In view of this, Judge Jackson's recent finding that Linux presents no credible threat to Windows dominance seems rather short-sighted. Two hundred years of experience in free-markets tells us that the companies that will prosper in such an environment will be those who provide the highest quality of service at the lowest price. There is little doubt that the quality of support for the Linux platform will soon be the highest and least expensive in the software industry.

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© Copyright 1999, Tim Romero, t3@vgkk.co.jp
This article fist appeared in the Nov 17, 1999 edition of The Japan Times.
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