What does Microsoft have to do with Christian churches?
Nothing, except that they both exhibit a certain behaviour: aggressive evangelism. Both operate in ways that tend to reduce freedom of choice and make it hard for people to choose alternatives. Their behaviour on this count is similar because their motivations are similar. Both wish to monopolize society.
When Google became popular in search, Microsoft tried to beat Google at search. When Google began its mail service, Microsoft tried to beat Google at mail. When Google began getting into maps, books, Microsoft put some serious effort into the same fields. This is reminiscent of church planting in Indian villages.
When a Hindu temple undertakes a major activity that might get people interested (such as renovation of a temple or appointment of a new priest), Christian organizations often rush to plant a church and engage in a publicity and incentive blitz to attract villagers.
Microsoft has been doing the same thing in the tech domain. If there’s any tech development that attracts people, Microsoft tries to enter it in a big way in order to attract customers to the Microsoft fold.
Both Microsoft and church have practically unlimited financial resources compared to their competitors, and both are extremely resistant to the existence of alternatives.
It’s no secret that I’m on the side of Freedom here: freedom as in free software, and freedom of religion. Makes me wonder: do Microsoft vs. open source and evangelism vs. freedom of religion have the same solution?
I’m reading The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, and he asks a question about open source that really made me think. What is the motivation for innovation if everybody gives their innovations away for free and nobody gets paid for their innovations, which is what open source seems to suggest?
I don’t have a good answer, but it seems to work. As Friedman himself points out, many important innovations have come out of open source, including the Apache web browser. I would go so far as to say that most innovations in the field have come from not-for-profit efforts. Google’s entire search infrastructure runs on Linux; Amazon’s entire web presence runs on Apache. It’s as real as it gets.
The question is tied to (and perhaps motivated by) statements from Microsoft bigwigs. Here is one that Friedman quotes (the inserts are his):
You need capitalism [to drive innovation.] To have [a movement] that says innovation does not deserve an economic reward is contrary to where the world is going. When I talk to the Chinese, they dream of starting a company. They are not thinking, ‘I will be a barber during the day and do free software at night.’… When you have a security crisis in your [software] system, you don’t want to say, `Where is the guy in the barbershop?’ — Bill Gates
But Bill Gates is hardly in a position to talk of innovation. Microsoft has not made any significant technical innovations in the last 10 years. Windows Vista’s UI is (feature-wise) just a bloated version of Windows 95, with some bling. Microsoft’s innovations are almost entirely on the business end: it has figured out effective ways to stifle innovation by competitors. So Bill Gates talking about what drives innovation is like a thief lecturing about honesty.
Gates’ comment about security is even more perplexing in light of the extensively poor track record Microsoft has in security. Open source alternatives are far more secure in every way than anything Microsoft has. Maybe the reason you don’t want the guy in the barbershop is if you know there’s something wrong with the security, it’s probably the Microsoft guy who’s responsible.
But what Gates says is not really relevant here. None of this actually answers the question: how can you justify, theoretically, the claim that innovation can be sustainably executed within Open Source frameworks?
I don’t have a good answer.
- Microsoft competes using business and personal tactics, not on technical merit. (Using SCO to run an anti-Linux malicious legal witchhunt designed to spread FUD about the legality of Linux, scaring away corporate customers of Linux; threatening PC manufacturers who offer Linux; using lobbying money instead of technical arguments to push OpenXML through)
- Microsoft doesn’t try to create better products than competitors; it tries to make competitor’s products worse. (Java is an example where Microsoft was foiled.) As a result, thousands of innovations never see the light of day unless Microsoft can make more money out of them.
- Microsoft has a culture of reliance on deception rather than openness. (In its earlier days, it tried to cover up security flaws rather than fix them numerous times. Currently, its claims about OpenXML being an open standard are disingenuous: Microsoft uses various techniques to make it almost impossible for 3rd parties to write software compatible with Microsoft Office even if OpenXML is followed.)
- Microsoft decisions are technically flawed. Microsoft sets off to make radical changes in the way things are done, relative to Unix. Several years later, it then begins a costly process of converting its legacy of bad code into practices similar to those of Unix. (Example: DOS’s lack of memory protection, user accounts, application settings instead of the registry, home directories, making security a priority, remote access)
- Microsoft’s “copy, don’t innovate” strategy has a significant opportunity cost for customers who don’t get useful features for years after they are available elsewhere. The problem is compounded by Microsoft’s monopoly. (Example: tabbed browsing, available for 4 years on Opera and 2 years on Firefox before Microsoft could make it available on IE.)
- With Microsoft, customers have no chance at code ownership. So features Microsoft wants to add are added when Microsoft wants them. A customer can pay to have features added to an open source app. Not so with Microsoft products; customers are entirely at Microsoft’s mercy. The problem is exacerbated if this refers to a feature that is useful to a small minority of customers, or just to one customer.
- Developers with smart ideas can add features to open source software. Not so with Microsoft software. Such ideas cannot be widely distributed without the entire piece of software being rewritten as an alternative, or Microsoft deciding to support the modification. No such ideas are ever part of Microsoft software. Thus, Microsoft stifles creativity (unintentionally, in this case).
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