Archive for August 26th, 2007

Reading the comments left publicly and privately for “Why would I care about Microsoft?”, I realize that many people’s view of free software is outdated. To many, free software is a small, delicate idea that a juggernaut like Microsoft can overrun at will. In this circumstance – which may have existed ten years ago – fears, obsession, and paranoia are only natural. But having these emotions in 2007 may no longer be appropriate. Like parents who haven’t realized that their children are growing up, perhaps many of us in the community haven’t realized that free software isn’t as fragile as it used to be.

I’m not saying that Microsoft shouldn’t be watched or that its motives shouldn’t be questioned or guarded against. But I am saying that free software is in a much stronger position to defend itself than even a few years ago.

Consider, for example, the variety of responses that Microsoft has made to free software in the last year. It’s tried co-opting companies like Novell, Linspire, and Xandros. It’s made unsupported threats about patent violations in GNU/Linux. It’s talked about wanting to cooperate with the free software community. Just ask yourself: Are these the actions of the winning side? Or are they a sign that the company is desperately looking for a winning strategy in a losing fight, or divided internally?

The truth is, free software has come a long way from its days of vulnerability. In its early days, free software may have been vulnerable, but now it has strong defenders. For major corporations like IBM, Sun, and Hewlett-Packard, free software means billions. Why do you think they have surrendered some patents, or supported the anti-Tivoization and patent clauses in the third version of the GNU General Public License? Part of the reason may be altruism, depending on your view of human nature, but, on the whole, I doubt that many corporations like these provisions. Yet not one of these companies was willing to disagree with them in public. In the end, the price of dissent was more than the potential profit.

And that, in itself, is a prime reason why Microsoft is not much of a threat these days. These days, to take on free software means to take on the rest of the computer world. No single corporation, not even Microsoft, can afford that risk.

Just as importantly, free software has grown its own defenses. At the Software Freedom Law Center, Eben Moglen and Richard Fontana are educating the next generation of free software legal defenders. The Linux Foundation is working on patent pools. Peter Brown and Richard M. Stallman at the Free Software Foundation are linking with social activists, who are starting to add free software to their causes. So free software has a second line of defence as well, one not limited by budgets or the concerns of shareholders. And if you haven’t talked to these people, let me tell you: These are frighteningly intelligent and dedicated people. If I wasn’t on their side, I’d think twice about opposing them.

But there’s a third line of defence, even stronger than the first two: The community itself. It’s no longer just geeks. It’s educators, for whom free software is the only way they can function with their limited budgets. It’s government departments in both industrialized and developing nations. It’s groups like Free Geekers introducing free software to the general public. This, I suggest, is defence in depth. In the event of an attack, the community is like thousands of widely dispersed guerrillas, next to impossible to attack by conventional business or legal means, and needing, not to win any fight, but only to make the cost of fighting too high for its opponents to want to continue.

Maybe I’m in a privileged position as a journalist. As I research stories, I probably get to see more of the community than most people. That’s why I trust it to be able to defend itself. Against these defences, a company like Microsoft may gain a temporary or limited advantage. But the days when it could realistically be thought capable of destroying free software are long over.

That’s why I don’t spend a lot of time or emotional energy worrying about Microsoft. I keep an eye on them, certainly – just in case. But Microsoft’s days as a threat are gone, and so are free software’s as a helpless victim.

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