You’ve got to hand it to him: Steve Ballmer is a master of innuendo. In a recent interview, published in Forbes, he manages to say nothing and threaten everything:
“Well, I think there are experts who claim Linux violates our intellectual property. I’m not going to comment. But to the degree that that’s the case, of course we owe it to our shareholders to have a strategy.”
So, this time it’s patents that will ensure the downfall of GNU/Linux and with it, the entire world of open source. But before hanging up your certified geek propeller-hat and retraining as a dental hygienist, you might want to consider the following brief history of Microsoft’s use of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) as a weapon against GNU/Linux. It’s a story that goes back nearly a decade, and one that has evolved through various stages of corporate denial.
1997: It’s not a threat
When I was writing a feature about GNU/Linux for Wired
magazine, I contacted Microsoft to find out their views on this new rival. At that time, they were so laid back about it, they were nearly falling over. In fact, GNU/Linux was such a negligible threat, they couldn’t be bothered coming up with even a mild bit of FUD for me. They just said: “We have a very talented team of developers making sure NT is the most powerful, flexible, and easy-to-use operating system.”
1999: It’s not very powerful
By 1999, Microsoft’s position that GNU/Linux wasn’t a threat was no longer tenable. Articles started appearing in the technical press that not only dared to compare GNU/Linux with Microsoft’s flagship Windows NT, but actually found it better. One, in a Ziff-Davis title called Sm@rt Reseller, for example, stated: “According the ZDLabs’ results, each of the commercial Linux releases ate NT’s lunch”.
But help was at hand. In April 1999, a performance testing company called Mindcraft issued a press release headed “Mindcraft study shows Windows NT server outperforms Linux”. It then emerged that Mindcraft had been commissioned by Microsoft to carry out the study – the first, but not the last time it would adopt this tactic. A fierce argument between Mindcraft and the open source community ensued about whether the tests had been fair, and how to make them fairer.
In fact, the end results of the re-run was not completely favorable to GNU/Linux, but something rather interesting happened. The open source community took the failures and used them to improve GNU/Linux to the point where it was indeed more powerful than Windows. By finding and drawing attention to free software’s weak spots, Microsoft actually made it stronger.
2001: It’s not very nice
In the face of the Mindcraft fiasco, and the growing strength of GNU/Linux, Microsoft changed tack. Steve Ballmer was wheeled out to bad-mouth the opposition, as only he can. In 2000, he said: “Linux sort of springs organically from the earth. And it had, you know, the characteristics of communism that people love so very, very much about it.” In 2001, talking to the Chicago Sun-Times, he expressed himself even more forcefully: “Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches.”
Powerful stuff. Unfortunately for the FUDmeisters at Microsoft, this kind of name-calling didn’t go down too well with its intended audience. Even Microsoft’s own research showed this, as revealed in one of the entertaining Halloween memos leaked to Eric Raymond.
2002: It’s not very cheap
Once again, a massive change of tactics was required.