Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Wait just a minute

In perusing Technorati today I came across a link to one of my posts on Boycott Novell (BN). Normally I tend to ignore such linking since you can be praised as well as flamed, and I have both a sensitive ego and remarkably thin skin. But I read the BN post anyway. Both the tone of the post and the content rubbed me the wrong way. Let me quote the (small) relevant part of the BN post:
Bill Beebe has been a SUSE user and blogger for years. He explores other territories too and he is not happy about the Microsoft/Novell deal, assuming the fact that he once added BoycottNovell to his blogroll means anything.
Let's start with the tail-end of that comment. Yes, I did have a link to Boycott Novell. It stayed up for a number of months, and then earlier in February I removed it. I've been an occasional reader of BN since its creation, and from the beginning I've felt it to be on the fringe with regards to a number of its conclusions. It's the fringe aspects of its interpretation of the facts with regards to the Microsoft/Novell deal that kept me from listing it from the very beginning, and it's those same aspects that eventually led me to remove it. Don't get me wrong. I certainly have no love for Microsoft. I've had a ring-side seat to every questionable deal Microsoft's been involved with since its inception in the mid 70's, starting with young Micro Soft's shot across the bow with Bill Gate's open letter to hobbyists.

Microsoft's relation to the software market has always been mixed at best. In the early days Microsoft was primarily good for the market. At a time when it cost large sums of money to individually purchase an operating system (Unix), then the TCP/IP stack, as well as a C compiler, it was a breath of fresh air as well as a financial relief to find an alternative in MS-DOS and Windows for Workgroups, as well as the low cost (comparatively speaking) of Microsoft's development tools. I remember that period with great fondness and remember having a lot of fun, along with many others who also bought and used Microsoft. The high-point of the period came in 1995 with the release of Windows 95. That year I drove north to Atlanta and Spring Comdex, and participated in the release party held there. I got to rub elbows with some of Microsoft's best and brightest as well as see Brad Silverberg. For the next five years until the release of Win2K I felt that, even if I didn't care for Microsoft's tactics, I could use their software with confidence that it was the right solution. It was unencumbered, such that I could install multiple copies on more than one computer. And the only computers I installed such copies on were the ones I had at home, the ones I hacked on and used to learn about Microsoft's software and underlying technologies. For business uses outside my home they were fully purchased and licensed.

Many of today's critics (especially the younger ones) tend to forget just how bad Microsoft's 'victims' were during the 90's. A prime example is Netscape Navigator. When it was first released it did little more than render HTML pages. There were a number of competitors in the market at the time before Microsoft became involved. Netscape, in a move that would later be used against it by Microsoft, allowed their browser to be downloaded from their FTP sites without having to pay for it. I remember the controversy that caused at the time because of the negative impact on the other smaller competitors. I also remember other controversial acts, such as unilateral introduction of new tags into HTML to support new features Netscape was coming up with. Of course, the W3C was (and continues to be) a weak and useless standards body, and the web community then as now complained and put up special pages that followed the W3C standards that wouldn't render properly in the Netscape browser. But the most controversial act Netscape committed was the release of Navigator 4. It was buggy. It was slow. It crashed more often than any other browser out there. And it came with its own implementation of Java, that itself was slow and wasn't totally compliant and could not be switched out with Sun's Java implementation. With the release of Navigator 4, Netscape drove me (and many others) straight into the arms of Microsoft and Internet Explorer 4. And we never looked back.

But after Win2K, and certainly starting with WinXP, Microsoft's overall corporate tone turned dark and ugly. What had been beneath the corporate surface was fully exposed, primarily by the fight and conviction with the Justice Department over Microsoft's monopolistic practices, a fight that continues with the EU. That ugly tone continues with how Microsoft treats its end users with the 'phone home' registration that Microsoft says is to combat piracy of its software. Now, I'll admit that based on the literal interpretation of one purchased copy/computer, I'm guilty of pirating Microsoft software. That's because in order to minimize my expenses I was taking the one copy of Windows that I did purchase and putting it on two other home machines, specifically to build up a little network of Windows boxes (since the network is the computer) and to do Windows network hacking. But that practice stopped with WinXP. I have only one legal copy of WinXP on my home systems. Any other copies came pre-installed on the systems (the Gateways) that were purchased by the company I work for, and are used for company purposes. If I want hack or otherwise investigate open standards on my on I do it with Linux. The lone WinXP legal installation is there for testing and to play some games. Otherwise I boot into Linux (Ubuntu 7.10 on europa). I use Microsoft these days only because there is no other practical choice for me, not because I want to.

And Microsoft's quality has decreased since 2000. My favorite Microsoft operating system of all time has to be Windows 2000. It was certainly more polished than either Linux or Apple's OS 9 at the time. The only reason I used Linux was because it was dirt cheap and I could install it on my existing dirt cheap IBM PC clones. I was already beginning to want an alternative to Microsoft, and saw that alternative more in Linux than in Apple. I didn't even think seriously about Sun, even though I'd been working with Sun hardware and software since 1996. Apple was expensive and proprietary, Sun even more so. I was a father of two trying to earn a living and stay current with my profession by working with the tools on my own time with my own funds, so I was driven by economic necessity to purchase what I could afford. And at the time that was Windows and Linux running on x86. But in the years since 2000 Microsoft has become increasingly expensive and invasive, to the point where, for economic as well as ethical reasons, I look far more heavily to Linux than I do to just about any other software solution.

I tell this story to document some of my history and to try and give you a flavor for my philosophy towards Microsoft. Hyperbole aside, Microsoft is not the devil incarnate. Microsoft did a lot of good, especially in helping the industry grow into what it is today. There was (and continues to be) cheap personal computers for me to run Linux on specifically because Microsoft did whatever it took to get its operating systems and tools on every computer being manufactured. Microsoft recognized early on that people want consistency and familiarity, especially at the man-machine interface. Microsoft provided that, first with DOS, and later with early Windows. That familiarity and ease-of-use helped to drive sales of personal computers, especially from vendors who were willing to sell inexpensive systems. I remember the day that Dell (then PC's Limited) and Compaq started to sell systems with DOS installed. That was hailed as a great advance at the time, and it was. Before then you bought your PC, then pulled out your DOS disks and installed it on your hard drive, followed by Windows. With DOS already installed your new computer became another appliance; hook up the monitor and printer, plug it in, and turn it on. Yes, you still needed to install Word Perfect (followed by MS Word) or other productivity applications, but an important psychological barrier was broken and the computer was a lot more approachable. And it only helped PC sales to grow.

The continuous shrill cries of outrage from BN (and Groklaw and others) have grown pointless, and after hearing them repeatedly they really annoy the hell out of me. Microsoft has won the desktop wars. The final victory came in 1995 with the release of Windows 95. Trying to push Linux on the desktop is another example of trying to fight the last war, the one you lost. The only competition against Windows these days comes from Apple, and they behave as badly at times as Microsoft. Apple is winning market share because of their fanatical attention to design, detail and quality (something that Microsoft forget and Linux never seems to have learned), and a lot of that market share is coming at the expense of Linux and Linux users (existing and potential). For example, half the users in the local Orlando SPARTA office are devoted Mac users. Before they were Mac users they were equally devoted Debian Linux users. And Cory Doctorow not withstanding, they are quite happy with their choice of Mac. Real measurable Linux adoption isn't on the classic desktop and it never will be. Real adoption is in non-PC arenas, primarily in embedded applications such as cell phones and portable multimedia devices. If Linux does appear on a PC it's on a very low-end system or on high-end systems installed by geeks like me. I know the lay of the OS land and where the traps are and have no concerns about Microsoft entrapment. I am as picky about my choice of Linux as the overall choice of Linux over Windows, and use the same technical criteria for judging Linux as I would for Windows. I use Ubuntu as an alternative to openSUSE right now because, in my not so humble opinion, 10.3 was a disaster primarily from a usability as well as a technical standpoint. But because I had such a long streak of satisfaction with openSUSE (and SuSE before that) I am looking forward to openSUSE 11, with a strong desire to go back to it if it turns out to be good improvement over 10.3. And that's in spite of the Novell/Microsoft deal.

As for the future, I'd appreciate it if Boycott Novell would go away and leave me alone. I respect their collective right to write what they believe concerning Novell and Microsoft, and I tend to agree with a lot of the facts. But their interpretation of those facts leaves me uneasy and cold, and I want it on the public record that I no longer support their conclusions or their web site.


  1. Hi Bill,

    My post was impulsive and you are of course right. Please accept my apologies. I'll carry on reading you without taking things out of context like this.

    To quote from an exchange I had with Asay yesterday (to shed light on Microsoft):

    "Microsoft has some nice people (I was actually shocked to hear that my sister had interviews with them). I just can't understand how they can surround themselves by so much of the poison that lacks a supervisor who tells them off for things like letters from the dead, briberies (more recently Sweden and Nigeria), among other things.


    Steve [Ballmer] is not a nice person. I don't think he ever will be. Even Martin Taylor and Bill Hilf walked away from him.


    Unless the management is 'rebooted' -- so to speak -- Microsoft will remain a cult. Have you seen the Evangelism is War memo? It's very telling. If you're not with them, they are at war against you."

  2. A balanced view of Microsoft! How refreshing! It has become fashionable to bad-mouth BG and family so that little is said about life before Microsoft.


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