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Microsoft vs. Linux: The Battle for Belief

By Rob Enderle TechNewsWorld ECT News Network
Sep 15, 2003 11:55 AM PT

Comparing Microsoft (the company) to Linux (the operating system kernel) might seem like comparing a city to a door -- or maybe even a hinge. However, Linux is more than just a technology. It is the poster child for the open-source movement.

Microsoft vs. Linux: The Battle for Belief

In the minds and hearts of its supporters, Linux has come to embody several ideals, from "free" as in freedom to "free" as in free beer, and it has captured a following that often seems to be more religious than technical.

However, Microsoft comes into this battle with more than US$40 billion in resources, the most comprehensive platform of any vendor (.NET) and dominance in several markets. The company's products are well understood, and several are considered standards in and of themselves. In technology, no company is more powerful than Microsoft. Only Intel even comes close.

Now, the one thing that can topple a company with strength equivalent to an entrenched government is a large number of well-coordinated people focused on taking that company down. Religious groups, because they have structure and focus, typically can do a better job of coordinating these kinds of attacks.

For example, because communism initially functioned more like a religion than an economic model, it was this religious aspect that made it initially successful and also scared the other states half to death.

Linux Assets and Exposure

Linux operates like a young religion. Many of its underlying concepts are similar to those of a commune. Ownership of key assets is avoided, the community works and shares in the results of its labor, and there is an avid and active hate for the competing capitalistic model -- in this case exemplified by Microsoft.

The concepts and beliefs that surround Linux represent the greatest threat that Microsoft has ever faced because this threat is not embodied in another company but in a semireligious concept.

However, like most religions, Linux's strength is also its weakness. Much like communism needed the threat of capitalistic states to hold focus, Linux desperately needs Microsoft if it is to remain an iconoclast. This focus is incredibly hard to sustain over long periods of time, mainly because organizations change. After all, Microsoft can and likely will adapt to the open-source threat. In addition, the commune model assumes something about human behavior that isn't true: It is based on the belief that people are equal.

Despite the prevalent misconception about huge numbers of open-source programmers, the development of Linux itself was largely due to the efforts of a small group of people. This imbalance is common to this model of development -- and it continues today. Over time, particularly if the threat holding the group together is removed, the people doing most of the work will leave the effort because they feel unappreciated and underrewarded.

You can quickly see how someone who worked for months to solve a problem might get upset if IBM took that work and used it to close a multimillion-dollar engagement.

Microsoft's Growing Exposure

Over the past five years, I've seen a major change in the people who back Microsoft. Five years ago, I was quoted in several articles supporting Microsoft. While I was attacked for these quotes, people came from all walks of life to defend my position and reputation.

Recently, I wrote a column that attempted to create a more balanced perception of Microsoft, and, as before, I was broadly attacked. While I did have some defenders, the difference in numbers was dramatic. My sense is that, gradually, over the past 5 or 10 years, Microsoft has been bleeding advocates. Those who remain to support the company are less and less likely to expose themselves by defending it.

However, this advocacy can cut both ways. The zealots have a tendency to overplay their hand and become an asset to the other side. I've often thought that one way to defend against a threat is to create and empower zealots for the other side and then let them destroy their own initiative through their foolishness.

Ultimately, this Microsoft-vs.-Linux issue is more of a political battle than a technical one, which means the battle is more about marketing than about products. This is a fight for the hearts and minds of the IT decision-maker as well as the consumer.

Microsoft's Defense

Two reports were recently issued -- one by Forrester and one by Gartner -- that point out that Linux is often more expensive than Windows. The Gartner report mirrors work I've done myself, and it should be no surprise to anyone that Linux is not yet ready for the general desktop, but that it does work well in terminal-like settings -- think thin-client computing.

The Forrester report is more troubling for two reasons: It was funded by Microsoft, and it challenges the widely held belief that Linux is less expensive on some Web servers by showcasing a hard-to-believe 26 percent savings with .NET over Linux-J2EE software for application development.

However, I know the analyst who put this report together. John Rymer is one of the best and most ethical in the field, and he is considered to be one of the leading experts on this class of technology. If this is what he concluded, given the past quality of his work and his heavy focus on doing what is right, I have to believe it is well founded.

Another recent report challenged the belief that Windows servers are more vulnerable than their Linux counterparts. This report turns that notion on its ear, documenting 67 percent of all successful attacks were perpetrated against Linux servers and just 23.2 percent against Windows servers.

Netting It Out

The biggest problem for all three reports is that this isn't a fight founded on facts, but on beliefs. Beliefs are very hard to overcome once established, and the belief that Linux is the better value is incredibly well established.

Clearly, both sides in this fight have advantages and disadvantages. The market remains Microsoft's to lose, but while Microsoft might not be vulnerable to another company, it is vulnerable to an attack by a large, focused group like the one backing Linux.

This is a fight for perception. And like most religious fights, this one lacks perspective. Think through your decisions, whichever technology you choose, and make sure your decision is founded in fact -- not simply belief.

Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a company founded on the concept of providing a unique perspective on personal technology products and trends.

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