The Big Marble

It is a Big Planet, but a Small World.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Bullies Have No Friends, Or Customers

This Thursday (11/18/04), Microsoft demonstrated once again the bullying corporate behavior that is fueling distrust among large and small customers and is actually fueling their emerging nemesis, Linux. This time, instead of terrorizing its competitors by dumping cheap, free, or bundled reproductions of their products, they challenged Asian governments attending the Microsoft-sponsored Asian Government Leaders Forum in Singapore to abandon their plans to migrate to Linux or else face lawsuits under World Trade Organization rules.

At the meeting, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was apparently referring to a report by the Open Source Risk Management group that alleged 283 unexplored patent infringements in the Linux kernel. That's a big number. What he didn't say was that the report stated that more than a third of the patents that pose a risk to Linux are held by Linux-friendly companies with financial interest in the operating system's success (IBM, Novell, HP, to name a few). He also neglected to mention Microsoft's own ongoing troubles with patent infringement suits against their own products. Ballmer's implications for these government leaders was clear: Microsoft, who is holding 27 of the patents in the OSRM report, is likely to invade their countries with an army of lawyers should they eschew Windows-based operating systems in favor of Linux.

Ballmer's comments are especially ominous given the recently leaked memo written by Hewlett-Packard executive Gary Campbell in 2002 that described how Microsoft would use patent-infringement litigation to fight open-source competition.

Migration to open-source software, particularly Linux and Linux-compatible products is hot in Asia, driven in part by a desire not to be held hostage by a huge American multi-national corporation and an increasingly wide-spread suspicion that the U.S. has put secret features into some software that would allow it to spy on, or disrupt activities within competing countries. These governments, especially China, believe that seeing the source-code behind the software they use, and being able to make known-secure builds from it are the only ways they can know for sure that they are in control of their computers. In an environment where a presidential administration can argue that torture is legal and ethical, this is not a radical idea.

No wonder that the Redmondians are nervous and it should come as no surprise to anyone that they are once again going on the attack. This is what they do. Ironically, Ballmer's message may have had exactly the opposite effect than what he had hoped for. In suggesting that “someone” might come looking for compensation for intellectual property infringement, it was clear to attendees that the someone would be Microsoft. Governments, being mostly made up of people, don't like to be threatened. Consumers don't like buying things because someone is twisting their arm. The bullying rhetoric these leaders received from the lips of Steve Ballmer is likely to add fuel to their suspicions and heighten motivation to move to Linux.

Even though the HP memo mentions a litigation strategy present at least since 2002, Ballmer's comments signal a shift in their approach. Whereas Microsoft has previously been satisfied with providing behind-the-scenes encouragement and funding for SCO's hapless legal battles with large Linux users, Microsoft seems to be indicating it will have more direct involvement in the frey.

When this is all over, we will know if SCO's strategy marks it as a savvy player or a desperate company with a no-longer-viable product, trying to survive by scavenging scraps from other companies who are actually trying to contribute to the GDP. Now, they are seen as dangerous buffoons and if they happened to release the next great killer application, they wouldn't be able to sell it because of the animosity they have created for themselves in the marketplace. The Santa Cruz Operation that once was a preeminent Unix company is now better known as, Sue Customers Often.

Microsoft now seems willing to join SCO in delivering more enmity than value. It is entirely arguable that Microsoft is delivering the best software portfolio on the planet. As a result of alienating their customers by threatening them for doing nothing more than trying to run their governments, businesses, and homes, Microsoft might find themselves one day in SCO's unenviable place as a joke in the market. There is a significant difference between going after developers and distributors of products that infringe on patents and going after customers who use the products. For every customer sued, ten others will decide that a company that sues its customers isn't worth dealing with.

It isn't enough to have the best products. Microsoft must present the best value proposition. This includes feature sets, availability, costs of ownership, compatibility and reliability, and a little thing known as trust. Even governments, with their faceless and sometimes mindless bureaucracies, will not willingly purchase products from suppliers who threaten them with lawsuits if their products aren't purchased. In a situation where the best product comes from a disagreeable supplier, the natural next step is to look for alternatives that are good enough.

Plenty of companies make open-source software that isn't as good as Microsoft software, but it is good enough for many. The ones that immediately come to mind are Open Office, Star Office, and Corel Office. Each of these are very capable suites and their use is on the rise. Some offer interesting native capabilities not present in Microsoft's Office Suite. For instance, can you see any value in publishing directly to .PDF format from within your word processor or spreadsheet? Open Office does that for free.

Microsoft can only further damage its reputation in the market by threatening customers with intellectual property lawsuits. But, such damage pails in comparison to the ruin it faces should it join its stooge SCO by actually filing litigation against Linux users. As a start towards a sane response to open-source, Bill and Steve should order a few hundred of their legal marines to figure out what an all-out investigation and legal defense of their 27 (currently) potential intellectual property claims against the Linux kernel would cost. They should then take this amount and add to it an estimation of the loss of market share they are certain to suffer when the world press begins excoriating them for aggressive legal tactics (the world hates aggressive legal tactics). As a conservative estimate, let's call it 25%.

Once this very large number is calculated, Bill and Steve should reduce the cost of Microsoft products by that amount across the board. That will be a blow to the open-source crowd who are not yet very good at countering Microsoft's white-papers about the higher costs of open-source software ownership. And it is no skin off of Microsoft's nose since they'd have lost that revenue anyway. This way, customers, rather than lawyers and competitors, get to keep the money. Open-source vendors bolt straight up in the middle of the night when they have this nightmare. Then they smile knowingly to themselves and shake their heads as they realize that this will likely never happen.

It's too bad that Sam Walton is dead. He would have known how to fix Microsoft. If Walmart were in charge of Microsoft's distribution and pricing strategies, they would sell it cheap everywhere and nobody else would be able to sustain a development effort or sustain a profit against them. Microsoft would have nothing to fear from open-source software or any other vendor.

Fortunately for the open-source crowd, the Redmondians appear unlikely to abandon their marketplace bully tactics anytime soon. The steely rhetoric that they rolled out in Asia last week will surely to reach our own shores soon. While it is ultimately good news for Linux and the scrappy open-source movement, we mere mortals who are likely to suffer as the titans battle above will wonder, “Can't we all just get along?”

Friday, November 19, 2004

Nuance is Necessary

I remember in W's first term, he was widely reported to have said, "I don't do nuance." As I watch our reconstituted president fumble his way across a complex geopolitical landscape, I see proof that he was telling the truth and that is not good news for our world, our country, or our children.

Having grown up in the South (born in Texas), I have heard W’s kind of romance for simple, straightforwardness all of my life. It comes from a sense among many people that all complicated issues can be whittled down to simple right and wrong terms. People who are able to consider and discuss the nuances of a complex issue are either trying to be clever (with the suggestion of trying to get away with something) or hide the fundamental and simple truth of the matter so as to obfuscate the path for clear action.

When people stop to really consider how things look from multiple perspectives, and to thoroughly listen to and consider the opinions of others, there are many people who begin to suspect that person's loyalty to their own kind.

Is it any wonder that W finds such appeal by being apparently plain spoken and simple-minded? The story he tells of the world is compelling in its simplicity. There are evil-doers in the world and our first priority must be to stop them from destroying the America. They don’t have a rational beef with us, they just hate freedom (this is my favorite argument that W gushes: in a breath it relieves us of the need to consider the argument of our enemies, which would of course be disloyal). We will protect ourselves by killing them and bringing the cultures that bred them freedom and democracy. I would pay much to be able to believe that simple story and to back it with my prayers, my money, and my vote.

Unfortunately, W's simplistic approach isn't working and can't work because it ignores the inherent complexities of the situation. After the Pentagon and State Department have mapped out all of the geo-political-military-economic-social intricacies so that they can calculate the best place to plant a bomb, there are still vast and unknown layers of complex issues that they have not included in their calculations. Perhaps they ARE aware of them, but know that since their boss doesn’t do nuance, it is best to strip this information from their analyses. Discarding nuance doesn't make its effect go away.

When you use your computer to change a color picture from your digital camera to black-and-white, you do it by substituting the millions of color variations to a handful of shades of grey. Basically, you are removing information. W and his ideologues do the same thing when they take an enormously difficult and complex situation and boil it down to black and white. By losing important information from the scene, they are not able to consider a response. By simplifying things, they are able to conceive that simple responses will satisfy. This is likely to be a deadly choice for millions of people and some of them will be us.

We live in a dangerous world of immense complexity and we need to hire leaders who recognize and respect that fact. It isn't enough for a cowboy to surround himself with smart people if he forces them to reduce nuanced analyses to pabulum that he can digest and articulate to the American people and the world. America is not served when we have a president who patterns his persona after Will Rogers sitting in a rocking chair by the fire. Ironically, THAT particular W's simple folksy demeanor was layered over an astute mind with an extraordinary sense of the world's complications and an ability to describe them with deceptive simplicity. Will's tales were simple but highly nuanced. If our W's impression of Will Rogers included a nuanced understanding of the world and an ability to articulate it with such art and clarity, perhaps half of the American population and nearly all of the world's population wouldn't fear his geopolitical bumbling.

Perhaps by reducing the size of the issue, our W can get the picture: Consider the game of chess, W. In case you weren’t aware, this is a game about one king and his army kicking the ass of another king and his army. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? There are only a few pieces and not many squares that they can move to. Basically, you can take your non-nuanced approach to problem solving and charge down the board to annihilate all of my pieces. The problem is that there is some complexity here, because as you’re doing that, I get to have a turn too. Your straightforward, non-nuanced approach will prevent you from being aware of the dangers that I can raise up in front of your pieces, or the strategies that I can employ to cause you to over commit your forces, or to waste time defending yourself while I build strength elsewhere. In the end, you will find that my nuanced understanding of the game and my nuanced assessment of your strengths and weaknesses, in the face of your blundering simplistic faith in your own strength will result in your defeat.

On the chessboard, this sounds fun. Unfortunately, I fear that the board you are playing this game on is all too real and that your real opponent is able to respond with deadly effectiveness to your non-nuanced approach. That could be trouble for all of us.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

One Thousand Too Many

On the ride home from work, I was stunned by what jumped out of the radio and into my road-weary consiousness. A reporter for NPR, describing how U.S. forces in Falluja were ousting insurgents, said that U.S. commanders were reporting that it had been necessary to blast homes in Fallujah neighborhoods where civilians were living. The reporter said that some homes were destroyed by mistake, but that "only one family was killed."

The reporter's reference to a family as an individual unit was callous, but it was the irony of that statement that caused me to catch my breath. A family is a collection of people who share our strongest bonds of love. Children's love for their parents is without condition or reserve. Parents' aspirations for their children create the purest expressions of altruism that most people encounter. These things make the family intrinsicly good in ways that individuals cannot normally achieve.

When our forces killed one family, they also killed the love, respect, and hope that was the web which kept them together.They killed the cherished traditions passed down from loving grandmothers and grandfathers. They killed the memories of a thousand tender moments that are experienced when we care for one another. These things embody our fondest wishes for our own lives and they are precisely the characteristics we ascribe to God. When we say that God loves family and we kill one, we injure our connection to Him. The images of burned and crushed bodies of families sacrificed for political, economic, or theocratic good speak of the lives they lost, and we can imagine from experiences with our own families what good is gone forever from the world as a result of their killing. In this war, we are killing God.

One family killed is one thousand too many. The greater good which is always dragged out as the reason for war is not acheived when we extenguish a family on the way there. For truly, there can be no peace in a world where killing a family is justified as collateral damage on the way to a greater good. There can be no greater good in a world whose leaders accept such calculations and defend their actions as good and righteous. All of the good will be found in smaller measures, where people are at their best: in families.

That this U.S. administration has the backing of the Christian right as it murders families and destroys lives at home and abroad in the name of security, prosperity, and freedom is an uunholy affront to those who truly love life in the way that Jesus tried to teach us.