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Why Microsoft will offer an Open Source OS

Voice of Unreason Stranger things happen at sea
Wed Jan 10 2007, 12:05
ONE OF LIFE'S MORE PLEASANT SURPRISES, akin to finding a £20 note in an old jacket pocket, is to receive an email from an INQ reader that isn't written entirely IN CAPITALS in green crayon and contains hardly any expletives or death threats. And when such a mail comes from a real email address, it actually becomes possible to have a sensible discussion.

Thanks, then, to Mat Barry for getting in touch a few days ago with some observations on my story doubting that Linux would ever pose a threat to Microsoft. The ensuing discussion threw up a few interesting points.

Firstly, why on Earth shouldn't Microsoft adopt the Open Source model and produce a Windows compatible OS of its own and give it away for free, charging only for support?

You can accuse Microsoft of many things, but not making lots of money isn't one of them. If Linux ever got to the point where it was costing the company serious money, what's to stop MS from fighting like with like? As Mat says: "They've already been accused of making money from other people's ideas, why would they stop with open-source software that they can provide support for, if it ever becomes an overwhelming hit?"

But the conclusion we reached was that, although Microsoft could indeed produce a free OS if it wanted to, the situation won't arise, simply because Linux will never pose a genuine threat.

Here's why.

Huge numbers of new Linux users will require huge amounts of support. Proper support, not crappy and impenetrable forum support, where users go in the hope of stumbling across drivers. The end user will need to either have everything done for them with completely automatic updates or by proper phone and Website support.

At this point, Linux will cease to be cheap. Large numbers of new end-users will need a ready source of proper support. The cost of providing this will force companies to charge more for Linux. And as the price of Linux starts to rise, you start to hit issues such as piracy. As with all priced software bundles, you need some type of insurance, such as product activation. The development of this will also cost more money. Add a couple more bucks to the sticker price.

Marketing and advertising would be another issue that would cause Linux prices to bump up. For your Linux to be a worldwide success beyond a hard core of technology enthusiasts, you have to show it off. Tick off a few more million bucks.

But, in order for a company to market a product successfully, ensure it is properly supported and isn't stolen, you also need to differentiate it from all the other flavours of Linux. This means including features that aren't available on other people's versions of Linux. Programmers, designers and consultants will have to be hired to develop these features and drivers. These people aren't cheap. Even games cost $50-60 a copy mainly because they need to include all this stuff, and an OS is far more complex. Pretty soon, you'll be looking at Linux price tags that are just a few dollars behind basic Windows products. Whoops.

And if that's the case, will users be prepared to throw away decades of familiarity, know-how and training and learn something new just to save $20, or will they stick with something familiar? In order for Linux to rival Windows, it will have to become the very thing it set out to destroy.

As George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm:

"Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which." µ

See Also
Linux is not an option


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