Micro$oft Monitor

Published by NetAction Issue No. 33 July 22, 1998
Repost where appropriate. See copyright information at end of message.

IN THIS ISSUE:

Closing Windows
Open Source Software Takes Off
About Micro$oft Monitor


Closing Windows

Just what are the alternatives to Windows-based operating systems and software applications? In this issue of the Micro$oft Monitor, NetAction Project Director Nathan Newman looks at "open source" software, also known as "freeware," and explains why it promises to be the best choice for consumers and software developers seeking to avoid Microsoft's grasp.

NetAction is planning a series of monthly Open Source brown-bag lunch meetings in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, and the East Bay, to bring together developers, media representatives who cover the software industry, and interested members of the public. The meetings will provide a forum for exploring and discussing open source software applications, introducing new features, and increasing support for the use of open source code in personal and business settings.

Readers interested in being notified when the forum schedule is established may write to: to be put on a mailing list which will be used to announce the forum schedule. For additional information, see: http://www.netaction.org/opensrc/.

For comments and questions about the following article, contact Nathan Newman at


Open Source Software Takes Off

By Nathan Newman, NetAction Project Director

Why should you care if Microsoft monopolizes computer operating systems and Internet products?

If the alternative is just some other company delivering a similar competing product, most people would not expect their lives to be impacted whether or not their products had a Microsoft logo.

But what if the alternative to Microsoft was not more of the same, but an alternative computing universe where software was free? By this, we partly mean free as in costing nothing for the user, but more importantly, software which can be freely modified by any consumer or company or organization serving the consumer. Any user or company would have access to how the software works and be free to modify and improve it themselves - an impossibility in a world where Microsoft jealously guards the secrets of its source code. The whole Internet would then become a collaborative medium for sharing improvements and involving more people in innovation than could possibly be involved at any single company.

That is the reality of a whole array of software emerging under the rubric of "freeware," or "open source software." Such software includes the Linux operating system installed on an estimated 5 million computers, the Apache Internet server used by half of all Internet web sites, the Perl programming language which gives many Web sites their dynamic nature, and the Sendmail program which routes over 80 percent of all Internet email traffic.

Realizing the vision of open source computing is what motivates many Microsoft critics, including NetAction, to oppose Microsoft's growing monopoly control of the computer marketplace.

While such a vision has at times seemed unattainable, recent actions are bringing that vision closer to reality:

The reason these announcements are so important is they address many of the concerns that have held back the spread of open source software. Ensuring ease-of-use and the availability of application software makes it more likely that the demand and reach of software like Linux and apache will expand rapidly.

The reason so many people are enthusiastic about open source software is that what these programs have traditionally lacked in software support has been compensated for by their programming strength and reliability. Anyone who has had to deal with Windows 95 crashes and other bugs appreciates Linux's robust strength and its broad dependability. If you marveled at the special effects of the movie Titanic, you were watching the results of the Linux operating system networking over 500 CPUs and five terabytes of hard drive space. With price being no object, the Titanic technical team decided that the freeware Linux installation was the best system: Windows was not technically up to the job and competing commercial UNIX systems did not have Linux's flexibility.

These advantages explain why Linux is the only operating system besides Windows that is expanding its market share. In fact, it is estimated that roughly as many new computer systems installed Linux last year as installed MacOS. With Linux increasingly winning the hearts of cutting-edge business-level computing, the next step is the home and office desktop market. The decisions by Netscape and Corel to expand the range of applications for Linux promise to speed that expansion.

On the Web, the free Apache web server has increasingly been recognized for its technical superiority over the products of commercial rivals Microsoft and Netscape. Created by a geographically dispersed group of hacker volunteers, Apache's share of the server market continues to expand above the 50% mark. It is now being used by companies like McDonalds, UUNET Technologies, HotWired, the FBI and IBM corporation (which passed over its own Lotus Domino server in favor of Apache when it put its "Big Blue-Gary Kasparov" chess match on the Internet).

The reason these open source programs outpace their commercial rivals is simple: the worldwide community of the Internet that these collaborative projects draw on is infinitely richer in talent than any single company like Microsoft. Knowing that everyone, not just a narrow set of stockholders, benefits from improving open source software, large networks of programmers and hackers will generously contribute time and talent to programs like Linux and Apache. And with the whole Internet community testing computer code they can examine in detail, these open source programs end up with fewer bugs than Microsoft products whose code is only examined by in-house programmers.

Similarly, while many users fear that software not backed by a single company will not have adequate customer support compared to commercial alternatives, the exact opposite is true. Technical support for open source software is so extensive on the Web and in UseNet discussion groups that INFOWORLD awarded its 1997 "Best Technical Support Award for 1997" to the Linux user community for support available for those needing questions answered or help in using Linux. Most Linux users thought online support for Linux was infinitely more specific (and less costly) than that available from Microsoft or other commercial alternatives.

However, the fears of those still reluctant to try this form of customer support may be eased by the announcements by IBM, Netscape, and Corel to expand their commercial support for Linux and Apache. The psychological lift from these recent announcements may be as important as their substantive contributes, as many consumers and businesses discover the dependability and support that already exists for open source software. This in turn will expand the ranks of companies like Caldera and Red Hat that are dedicated to selling easy-to-install versions and providing customized support for open source software.

All of these advancements are dependent on Microsoft not being allowed to unfairly use its dominance of the personal computer market and browser market to undermine its open source software rivals.

In an ideal world, Microsoft would be putting its talent to producing nice-looking interfaces for a core of open source software in competition with a range of other companies -- all of whom would have equal access to the core computer code.

With the recent announcements by Netscape, IBM and Corel supporting open source software, and with the antitrust interventions by the Justice Department and State Attorneys General, we may be inching towards that future.

(This article was written by Nathan Newman, NetAction Project Director. Contact Nathan at with comments or questions.)


About The Micro$oft Monitor

The Micro$oft Monitor is a free electronic newsletter, published as part of the Consumer Choice Campaign http://www.netaction.org/msoft/ccc.html. NetAction is a national, non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public, policy makers, and the media about technology-based social and political issues, and to teaching activists how to use the Internet for organizing, outreach, and advocacy.

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Copyright 1998 by The Tides Center/NetAction. All rights reserved. Material may be reposted or reproduced for non-commercial use provided NetAction is cited as the source. NetAction is a project of The Tides Center, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.