A Look at Microsoft's Vista and Microsoft's Relationship with Linux

Linux / Open Source
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As I write this, it's New Year's Day, the day when people traditionally resolve to be optimistic about the potential a new year holds. I, too, tend to wax philosophic about a new year, but I admit that the only New Year's resolution I have been able to keep is the resolution to not make any more resolutions. I guess that categorizes me as either a cynic or a pessimist (the definition of which is "an optimist with practical experience").

My cynicism is borne, no doubt, from some of the major 2006 stories concerning the company we (mostly) all love to hate. Because of these stories, I look on 2007 as the year of SOS (same old "stuff"). Let's look at two as I vent a bit.

Microsoft Vista

My biggest source of consternation is the impending release of the long-delayed Microsoft Vista. Naturally, this operating system promises to be a major leap forward in usability and security. Just ask Microsoft! Yet despite all of those promises, the reality, for those of us who get the pleasure of managing MS desktops, is that some serious issues need to be addressed before even considering a full-scale deployment.

First, is your current hardware up to the task of running this new OS? To take advantage of all of the bells and whistles, you'll need some serious horsepower, so you may find yourself looking to upgrade (replace) your desktop machines before you can even consider Vista. While that's a serious negative to businesses in general, I personally look forward to the flood of cheap (even free), powerful hardware that will find its way into my possession, ready to find a new life running Linux (and very capably, thank you) in both server and desktop roles.

If you do have sufficient horsepower for Vista, then there's the issue of drivers. I have been reading some articles (use this Google link for more) bemoaning the lack of device drivers, with the ensuing finger-pointing as to whether or not the blame for this dearth goes to Microsoft or to the hardware manufacturers. Not one to be a conspiracy theorist (yeah, right), I look at the possible cause from a logical standpoint. If I were a hardware manufacturer who wanted to sell hardware for a new, allegedly kick-butt-and-take-names operating system that is bound to sell like hotcakes, would I drag my feet or would I jump in and get my drivers done and be ready for the release? That's a rhetorical question, of course. Now what could possibly delay my entry? Here are two possibilities: 1) an API that keeps changing, thwarting my development efforts; 2) Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology that requires complicated code and licensing of third-party technology.

I'm sure that eventually the hardware manufacturers will get their drivers done—they'll have to if they want to stay in business—but in the meantime, we all get the headache of ensuring hardware compatibility with the systems on which users will want the new OS loaded. We'll never know what actually caused the delay because no hardware manufacturer wants to spill the beans, thus incurring the wrath of Microsoft.

Of course, all of this upgrade and migration pain will be worth it, since we'll now all be treated to a secure operating system from Microsoft, right? Well, the operating system hasn't yet been released to the average consumer and already the black hats have found holes in the OS. (MS apologists are no doubt ready to throw the old "no OS is completely secure" argument in my face, but consider that this OS is ostensibly a complete rewrite, built with security in mind.) It seems that we can look forward to a whole new raft of security issues as the black-hat community gets cracking and as the OS security is vetted. Hopefully, we'll see frequent updates to address the issues as they're discovered, but I don't look forward to the game of Russian roulette that ensues when I apply an update (e.g., will my existing apps continue to work properly if I install this patch?).

Makers of anti-viral software have been hard at work getting their products updated for Vista, and from what I have been reading, they have found the new operating system to be a snap to integrate with and Microsoft to be a fountain of information to make it so. Thus, those of us with corporate editions of the high-profile software (such as Symantec) will have continuous protection as we upgrade. (For those who haven't caught the sarcasm in this paragraph, please check out the link located within.)

The bottom line? I hope that Microsoft gets it right this time and actually makes a secure OS. Then perhaps my anti-spam measures won't get so much of a workout. If MS can actually make its OS more secure, the general public's computers will no longer be spambots, working at the behest of some bottom-feeding spammer. I'm skeptical, though, that they can pull it off. Why? Because the features that make Windows so easy for Joe Public to use are also the main vectors for infiltration. Turn them off to make things secure and you'll have Joe Public screaming. Leave them on and you'll have support staff screaming. It will be interesting to see what actually happens.

My biggest issue with Vista is with its embedded Digital Rights Management code (also known as Digital Restriction Management). To be clear, I do not give away copyrighted material; I think a supplier should get fair remuneration for his material if he desired it. But no matter how you look at it, DRM is simply a way for the producers of music, software, and other digital content to control how and when the material is used (neatly sidestepping "Fair Use") while at the same time providing means to extract additional cash from the public. All I'd like to know is why anyone thinks that the existing copyright laws aren't already sufficient for protecting both supplier and consumer. In any event, DRM will only serve as an additional headache to those of us in IT. I liken it to an advanced form of the dongle (remember those abominations?). Well, you ain't seen nothin' yet!

Microsoft Embraces Linux

The story of 2006 that really had the open-source world talking was the Microsoft/Novell lovefest. If you read the open letter (read: rationalization) that Novell put on its Web site concerning the agreement, you'll see some of the more interesting points.

The primary issue surrounds patent coverage. Basically, this agreement states that MS won't sue Novell's customers over their use of any software MS deems to be violating one of its patents, and Novell will offer the same courtesy to MS's customers. While the discussion in the open letter does initially make some sense, I would point out that from a Linux standpoint, it's totally disingenuous. For starters, only Novell's SuSE Enterprise customers would be protected from any potential lawsuits, so all this manages to do is give Novell a leg up on its competition should anyone concerned about these patent infringements care to buy based on this indemnification. Personally, I think the whole patent threat is a red herring and is simply the next salvo from Redmond. Now that the money MS pumped into SCO has pretty much gone down the drain, along with SCO's lawsuit against IBM, MS needs additional fodder for its omnipresent FUD campaign. Patents are that fodder.

Let's get the dirty little secret out in the open: The big software vendors' software patents are like the world's various nuclear arsenals. No one is going to fire off a missile, as mutually assured destruction would certainly ensue. While MS can certainly lay claim to a decent patent portfolio, it does not by any means have the biggest portfolio, which has a decidedly Blue tint to it. I'm not sure that anyone's software would stand up to close scrutiny, but I am sure that no company would want to be the first test case. Software patents are the Sword of Damocles hanging over the leaders in this industry, but it's the little guys that fear it.

Besides the patent issue, the letter extols the virtues of the agreement with promises of improved collaboration and interoperability (while repeatedly bringing up the patent issue). Yawn. Novell is currently working on OpenOffice.org support for the Open Office XML format, which is Microsoft's answer to the Open Document Format, already a standard. Novell then promises to donate its code back to the OpenOffice project and include its plug-in with its version of OpenOffice.org. While Novell is certainly welcome to create its own customized office suite, I hope that OpenOffice.org (and other open-source projects) rejects any code coming from Novell. It just can't be trusted not to cause problems later. As I've said, I'm a cynic. But I've also been in this industry long enough to know the Microsoft mantra: embrace, extend, and exterminate. MS has done it with many other firms over the years, and I can't see why Novell would think itself immune. Microsoft has felt the heat of open-source competition (Steve Balmer's comments are pretty clear), and in my opinion, it's reacting in the way it does best. I just hope that Novell doesn't become the next victim. Fortunately, the GPL ensures that Linux and other open-source software won't go down with the SS Novell, should it run aground.

Microsoft Bashing

I know that many out there will accuse me of Microsoft bashing. I'm not, really. The company produces software used worldwide, and all of these people can't be wrong, can they? My problem is with the tactics that MS uses, which haven't seemed to change much from the antitrust days. The latest revelations about the rewards sent to bloggers have raised quite a stir and simply remind me about why I question the value that the software provides. Is the licensing, TCO, and DRM worth it?

I'm an open-source software guy. I like what can be accomplished with the various open-source products, and I can see why MS is making hay while the sun shines. Open-source software is nipping at its heels. You, the technology manager, have to ask yourself this question: Will 2007 be the SOS, or will you open yourself up to picking the packages that best help you run your business? Even if your final choice is Microsoft, make sure that you choose MS based on features and costs (including the cost of freedom represented by DRM), not threats and FUD.

Barry L. Kline is a consultant and has been developing software on various DEC and IBM midrange platforms for over 24 years. Barry discovered Linux back in the days when it was necessary to download diskette images and source code from the Internet. Since then, he has installed Linux on hundreds of machines, where it functions as servers and workstations in iSeries and Windows networks. He co-authored the book Understanding Linux Web Hosting with Don Denoncourt. Barry can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..