Gates Keeps Eye on Linux Threat

Attempting to show that Microsoft’s software development model has some distinct advantages over the more amorphous model of the open source community, Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates Tuesday drew a parallel between the fragmentation that hobbled Unix in the ’80s and the state of the GNU/Linux platform today.

According to eWeek, Gates told nearly 700 of Microsoft’s Most Valuable Professionals (MVPs) at the eighth annual MVP Summit that Linux is an “unusual kind of competition because in a way it’s out there and very pervasive. In a way, there’s more incompatible versions of Linux than there are of all other operating systems put together. That is, as people do innovations on top of Linux, they don’t all get tested together and they’re not all consistent with each other.”

And that, Gates said, means that open source development will never match commercial software development in certain areas, especially testing, support and innovations. As an example, eWeek said Gates turned to the development of the Tablet PC, which required the coordination of a handwriting group, an Office group, and a user interface group to make a reality.

“It’s almost like a 747 where, yes, it’s easy to do a wing, it’s easy to do a tail, but to produce a wing and a tail that work together under all conditions, that’s tough, and that’s the position we’re in,” Gates said, according to eWeek.

However, companies operating in the Linux space have been striving to prevent Linux from fragmenting into proprietary and incompatible versions as Unix did. Perhaps the clearest expression of that effort was the creation of the Free Standards Group in May 2000. The Free Standards Group’s mission is to lay out common behavioral specifications, tools and APIs, to make development across Linux distributions easier. To that end, the Free Standards Group created the Linux Standards Base working group, whose mission is to develop and promote a set of standards that will increase compatibility among Linux distributions and enable software applications to run on any compliant Linux system.

In 2002, the LSB group began offering certification of compliance with the standards base.

In any case, Gates said Microsoft will continue to take the threat posed by Linux seriously, as it did with other technologies that at one time or another were predicted to kill Microsoft.

“OS/2 for about six years was that,” Gates said, according to eWeek. “And it wasn’t a joke; it was all of IBM that was 10 times the size of Microsoft putting all their energy, their leverage on ISVs, bundling it with their systems, everything they could do to beat Windows, and we as a company had to learn new things, do new things to respond to that competition.”

In fact, in its latest 10-Q filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Microsoft admitted, “Nonetheless, the popularization of the Open Source movement continues to pose a significant challenge to the company’s business model, including recent efforts by proponents of the Open Source model to convince governments worldwide to mandate the use of Open Source software in their purchase and deployment of software products. To the extent the Open Source model gains increasing market acceptance, sales of the company’s products may decline, the company may have to reduce the prices it charges for its products, and revenues and operating margins may consequently decline.”