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Winning? What Really Is the Goal?
Sunday, September 10 2006 @ 01:47 PM EDT

Slashdot is highlighting a June 2005 interview with two of Harvard's professors, Ramon Casadesus-Masanell and Pankaj Ghemawat, about a research project they did, "Microsoft vs. Open Source: Who Will Win?" using economic modeling to see if Linux could oust Microsoft from the market.

May I ask why the question is formulated like that? No. Really. The interview has me really wondering.

Slashdot picked one element -- the researchers modeled with the factor that you can get Linux for free, which didn't result in Linux winning -- but they didn't highlight the next part of the interview, where two more elements were added to the model. Note the very different results:

Having obtained this basic result, we investigate the conditions that will warrant that Linux ends up forcing Windows out. We do this by modifying the model in two ways. First of all, we look at the effect of having buyers such as governments and some large corporations committed to deployment of Linux in their organizations. We call such buyers strategic. In addition to cost-related reasons, governments back Linux because having access to the source code allows them to verify that sensitive data is treated securely. Binary code makes it hard to figure out who has access to information flowing in a network. Companies such as IBM, in contrast, back Linux because they see in OSS one way to diminish Microsoft's dominance. We find that the presence of strategic buyers together with Linux's sufficiently strong demand-side learning results in Windows being driven out of the market. This may be one main reason why Microsoft has been providing chunks of Windows' source code to governments.

Are not both those elements exactly what is currently happening? IBM is backing Linux and governments all over the world -- such as in Massachusetts -- are beginning to understand the importance of and to require open standards and open formats. According to the project results, that is enough to force Microsoft out of the market. No wonder Microsoft fought so hard. ODF really matters. It can destroy Microsoft, according to the project results.

In case you have that goal. But may I ask a fundamental question? Why would you? Does only one have to "win"?

Now, personally, I don't care about "owning" the market or "driving out" anybody. I know Linus doesn't either. In fact, I don't actually know anyone who has that goal in the FOSS community, but I realize I don't know everybody, so there may be some. I fell in love with GNU/Linux operating system before it was popular, and if it never became popular in the enterprise, I would have remained happy. The only time I'd care would be if there could, in fact, be only one operating system. Then I'd want it to be GNU/Linux. But is that really the choice? I understand from the interview that the professors stress that using economic modeling requires a kind of simplification, but the very fact that folks study such topics, formulated as one or the other winning 100% puzzles me and it has me wondering if I'm missing something vital. Is that really the only way to be in business?

Nobody wrote Linux to try to own the market or to destroy Microsoft. It was written by volunteers, because they enjoyed the challenge and the new development model and in some cases because they saw the value of freedom. If Microsoft makes buckets of money to time indefinite, it's fine with me, as long as they do it fairly and don't try to destroy Linux with dirty tricks. I know. Two big Ifs. But that's the aspect I care about.

I use GNU/Linux because I like it. I enjoy it. I love the ability to control my own security, which results in no small part from being able to view the code. And I like the variety, the endless visual environment possibilities, because I get easily bored in any one look. I like that I can try all kinds of distros. It's fun. I like that there are so many text editors. I like that there are both KDE and Gnome. I also love blackbox. It's fast. And soothing. And I can design my own, if I really wanted to, or could hire someone to do it for me. So I don't personally care if Linux "beats" Microsoft, as long as Linux stays available and stays free and fully under the GPL to make sure it stays free.

But I recognize that Microsoft and other vendors may not reciprocate those feelings, and so when I read that paragraph, I said to myself, that must be why they are fighting so hard against ODF in Massachusetts. They may view it as the ballgame. And I also see a danger, now that Linux is becoming so popular.

Why do business types think the only way to stay in business is to destroy the competition 100% out of the market? Could someone explain that to me, please? Thinking that way skews human values we all hold dear, or most of us do, in our personal dealings, and that isn't good for anyone. You tend to end up in antitrust litigation as the defendant, for one thing. And you end up hated by pretty much all your competitors and the public. There's a stench to it.

If there is one thing that Linux teaches, it's that there actually is room for all kinds of distros, if you are not determined to be insanely rich, and that competing on the merits leads to better software, in a healthier competitive environment. I hope that doesn't get lost in the success. Since Groklaw's function is to ask the simple, the-emperor-has-no-clothes questions, I'll ask this: what is the point of being insanely rich? All that happens is that at some point, you end up distributing your money to somebody else anyway, either to family members on your death or to charities. And if you got it from dirty tricks and power moves that really hurt others, what does that do to you in the end? To your company? Is that really the only way the market can work? Why isn't it enough to just do well and let your neighbors do well too? I'm asking because I am genuinely puzzled. If it's really true that business is a zero-sum game, I'd like to know it. And some of you may actually have some answers.

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