Thursday, June 16, 2005

Why Microsoft Fails against Linux - It's About Tools

My brother called me today to tell me that Microsoft is now selling a cheaper version of their MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network) development suite. If you go to the Microsoft website and look for MSDN Universal , you'll see you can purchase it for the princely sum of $2,799. That's right, that's not a mis-type. That really is almost three grand. You do get a lot in this package, including regular updates through the period of the subscription (12 months), but you have to ask yourself is it really worth that much? Not to me. At that price I can afford a new PC every year and still have money left over for SuSE Pro twice/year, Red Hat Enterprise Workstation, and FreeBSD.

It wasn't always that way. I'm an original Microsoft booster from back in the 80's when Santa Cruz Operation's Xenix and Digital Research's CP/M and MP/M cost dearly. For a fraction of either product I could easily afford Microsoft DOS, Windows, and their developer tools. I'm even an original MSDN subscriber. I signed on when it was introduced in the early 90's along with Windows NT 3.1. At that time all I got from Microsoft was a developer's newsletter (which was really quite good, IMNSHO). Microsoft announced in that newsletter a yearly service where, for an initial $199, I could get a collection of CDs with all of Microsoft's latest operating systems and tools. I snapped that up in a heartbeat. Up until that time I separately purchased Microsoft's Windows, C and SDK, and here Microsoft was offering all that and more for less than the individual purchase prices of those tools. I was not disappointed when it arrived. The early MSDNs were excellent gateways to understanding Windows internals as well as really innovating with the OS. That sense of well-being lasted until the mid-90's when the price of MSDN rose beyond my home budget to keep up. I stopped buying yearly subscriptions when the price went north of $400.

As MSDN grew ever more expensive Linux as a complete solution was beginning to come into its own. By the mid 90's I could choose from a number of complete quality distributions on CD-ROM that included not only the operating system but a myriad tools to do real work. There were compilers and editors (emacs in particular, which was a decent IDE if you could stand text-based tools, and I could) and dynamic languages (scripting languages back then such as Perl) as well as debuggers and the beginnings of windowing toolkits. For those who just had to have that Motif look-and-feel there was even lesstif. And all this for the cost of distribution on CD-ROM media, which was usually around $20. Linux wasn't as pretty as Windows at the time, but it was a Unix-like clone that did a lot more than any version of Windows available and it was stable, extensible, and above all else, affordable.

When Microsoft raised the bar to easy development on Windows, they chased away all but the well-heeled, and left many of us looking for alternatives to scratch that inventor itch. That itch has been, and continues to be, scratched by Linux (and to a lesser extent, *BSD). Microsoft has spent the last decade building up their hegemony in the corporate space while ignoring everything else. It's been a good short to near term strategy with regards to profitability. After all, you can't argue with nearly $10 billion/quarter revenues. But while they've been managing that area of their business they've forgotten a fundamental law of business: where the next generation of IT users and decision makers come from, and how that generation forms its initial perspective. It's formed from the systems and the system tools that are easily affordable. With Linux and open source it's a no-brainer. You download everything you need and put it on easily affordable hardware. For the last 10 years, and especially the last 5, all those high-school and college kids have been "indoctrinated" by Linux. And that's what they're going to carry with them as they move out and into the work force. When there are finally enough to make some real decisions and make them stick, then Microsoft the company will find out what it's like to shrink from prominence to niche status. And they'll have only themselves to blame.

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