that the European Commission is to fine Microsoft - €280.5 million has
naturally provoked plenty of headlines, both in the technical and
non-technical press. But big as that number might seem, it is in truth a
gnat-bite as far as the Microsoft behemoth is concerned: last
year its net income was $12 billion, and it holds cash and short-term
investments worth over $39 billion. Against this background, the EU's fine
is a little more than an accountancy rounding error.
What is interesting about the whole affair is that the sticking point seems
to be an apparently minor requirement to provide technical information that
would allow third parties to interoperate better with networks running
Microsoft Windows. But as a press release from the Free
Software Foundation Europe rightly points out, this obstinacy is not over
some general principle, whatever Microsoft might claim, but is actually
highly specific, and has one aim above all: to thwart Samba's rise in the
Thus Microsoft's brinkmanship with the European Commission is driven almost
entirely by its need to react to free software. It turns out that this is
by no means the only sphere where Microsoft has ceased to be master of its
own destiny, and finds itself constantly responding to open source
initiatives, and playing catch-up with free software projects.
A good example is to be found in the world of high-performance computing
(HPC). GNU/Linux was first used for computing clusters back in 1994, when
project began. Since then, free software has established itself as the
pre-eminent HPC solution. In June 2006, the TOP500 listing of the most
powerful supercomputers in the world showed that well over 70% of them ran
some variant of GNU/Linux; precisely two systems out of 500 used some form
of Windows. The same month, Microsoft finally launched
its official HPC solution, the Windows Computer Cluster Server 2003
fully 12 years after the first free software solution was made available
for this sector.
While the crushing lead that free software has over Windows in the HPC area
is little known outside specialist circles, most people in computing are
familiar with the fact that the Apache Web server has maintained a
commanding lead over Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS) for the
past few years.
Microsoft, too, is obviously acutely aware of this, and recently has been
making sustained efforts to reduce the embarrassingly large lead Apache
holds, and with some success. For example, the Netcraft survey for June
2006 showed that Microsoft IIS gained 4.5 million Web servers, while
Apache lost 429,000, giving Microsoft a whopping 4.25% gain for the month,
and cutting the gap between them to 31.5%, a drop of 16.7% in just three
months. Closer examination reveals exactly why this is happening. As
Netcraft's analysis explains:
Apache's loss of hostnames is due to decreases for
Linux at a number of hosting companies. In addition to Go Daddy [which
moved over 1.6 million hostnames from Apache to IIS], six hosts reduced
their use of Linux by 40K or more, including leading UK provider PIPEX
Communications, Lycos and Zipa.
This is unlikely to be coincidence. After a year of steady market share,
the graph for IIS has been rising sharply since March 2006, which suggests
a concerted effort by Microsoft to court hosting companies in order to
swing them away from Apache on GNU/Linux towards IIS running on Windows.
Once again, then, this shows Microsoft being forced to react to free
software's successes. Despite these efforts, the market still seems to be
moving away from Microsoft: the Netcraft survey for July
2006 shows a gain of 1.8% for Apache, mostly made of up incremental
gains at a dozen hosting companies.
Perhaps the best-known example of Microsoft being compelled to revise its
strategy thanks to free software is in the world of Web browsers.
Development work on Microsoft's browser had effectively came to a halt
after the release of Internet Explorer 6 in August 2001. Microsoft's
refusal to provide any significant updates to IE 6, despite its mounting
security problems, was one of the prime
reasons why the Firefox project was started. Firefox's steady rise in
popularity, and the corresponding drop in Internet Explorer's market share,
eventually compelled Bill Gates to announce
a reversal of Microsoft's previous decision not to produce a standalone
browser before Vista appeared.
With betas available of both IE 7 and Firefox 2.0, the emerging consensus
seems to be that Microsoft has largely caught up with the free software
world as far as browser technology is concerned, but the price that it has
paid for its lengthy refusal to satisfy the needs of users is a serious
loss of market share. Latest
figures from OneStat.com show that Firefox holds some 15.8% of the
browser market in the US, and a massive 39% in Germany.
Even though the appearance of IE 7 is likely to staunch the flow of users
away from IE to Firefox, the latter has established itself as a serious
rival, one that Microsoft will need to track continually to prevent more of
its users defecting. In itself, this is not a huge problem for Microsoft.
The appearance of Firefox has essentially made Microsoft more responsive to
users, and more amenable to following open standards. It does not, though,
imply any loss of revenues.
The situation for office suites is quite different. Microsoft Office is
one of the main cash cows for the whole company: any loss of market share
here will have serious financial repercussions. This makes Microsoft's decision
to sponsor a project to create tools to build "a technical bridge"
between the Microsoft Office Open XML Formats and the OpenDocument Format
all the more surprising, since potentially it could lead to a costly leak
of Office users to other office suites supporting ODF.
It shows once more the world's leading software company being forced to
backtrack in response to developments in the open source world.
Microsoft's position initially was that no one was using ODF, and so there
was no point supporting it. But the announcements by Massachusetts
and, particularly, the Belgian
governments in favor of ODF - with administrations in France,
considering the move - meant that Microsoft was forced to cede to the
growing pressure for some kind of ODF support in Office. The fact that
Google has joined
the ODF Alliance - whose members now number 260
- and will be supporting the ODF standard with its online word processor Writely
means that Microsoft's scope for independent action is even more
Taken on their own, each of these instances of Microsoft emulating or
accommodating free software might seem fairly minor. Put together, they
represent a consistent pattern of loss of control that is unprecedented in
the company's recent history. From being on the fringes, ignored or at
best derided by traditional software companies, open source has gradually
moved to the centre, to the point where today it is free software - and not
Microsoft - that is setting the agenda for computing at practically every
Glyn Moody writes about open source at opendotdotdot.
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