The Origins and Future of Open Source Software

Where to Go from Here--Ending the Microsoft Monopoly

So with all this good news, open source software might seem to be an antidote to the threat of Microsoft's monopoly. At least that was the argument Microsoft executives were making in court in January. Of course, even Microsoft's in-house political magazine, Slate, noted the irony that everything the executives described about "Windows' impending obsolescence and its rivals' virtues [was] exactly the opposite of what Microsoft tells consumers and corporate clients."[22]

Microsoft may play up the marginal danger of Linux to its market share, but the sobering reality is that Microsoft server sales are still growing faster than the overall market growth-- increasing Microsoft's market share. Linux is growing, but mostly at the expense of commercial versions of UNIX, whose growth has essentially dropped to a standstill of only 4% in 1998. And neither Linux nor a rejuvenated Apple is undermining Microsoft's complete domination of the desktop market.

While many of Microsoft's competitors are collaborating in support of Linux, they are just as likely--especially with a little Microsoft incentive--to fall out into competing camps that might easily divert Linux or other open source software into a competing muddle of standards. Just as the UNIX wars served Microsoft, a similar split in the future could easily knock Linux out as a strong competitor to the centrally-controlled standards of Windows.

However, the limited success of Linux and other open source software does have implications for the Microsoft antitrust trial. The availability of open source software is not an excuse to find Microsoft innocent of the wholesale monopolistic abuses that the trial has exposed. But it may become one of the remedies that the court and other government agencies use to rein in Microsoft's monopoly power.

Many, including NetAction, have proposed remedies to Microsoft's monopoly abuses, from breaking up the company into multiple competing units to court-ordered limits on its licensing agreements to forcing Microsoft to reveal its source code to prevent in-house coders from having advantages over competitors in non-OS markets.

While such government restrictions are likely necessary, none of them speak to the issue of creating a strong viable alternative to Microsoft. As Mitch Stoltz notes in "The Case for Government Promotion of Open Source Software," the federal government already spends billions of dollars on software research, purchases and implementation. If it marshaled those resources in support of open source solutions, it would achieve not only many of the clear advantages open source software delivers but would undermine the Microsoft monopoly at the same time. If the government demands uniform standards for Linux and other open source software for government purchases, this will go a long way toward preventing fragmentation of standards throughout the open source universe.

Many critics of the Microsoft suit raise reasonable concerns that a purely negative, restrictive approach to punishing Microsoft might inhibit innovation at the company without necessarily creating a viable competitor. Promoting open source software is the positive policy option that the government should employ to encourage the sort of innovation and competition that is needed to truly end the Microsoft monopoly.

Next: End Notes