Get off my lawn.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Microsoft against the Free World, Part MXXLCXCV

Microsoft, convicted monopolist, crusher of countless small companies and enterpreneurs, has announced that "free software" infringes on 253 of its software patents.

How ironic. Microsoft themselves have been on the receiving end of patent suits (ones they lost), and had to pay millions of dollars in damages in one case I remember. When it happened, they complained about software patents being "bad". Boo hoo. They've been kicked around by the governments of several countries for abusing their status as a monopoly. In those cases, Microsoft pleaded with the courts to let them "innovate". In the times where they've been found to be on the wrong side of the law, they've made every effort to come across as the poor, persecuted multi-billion dollar company being picked on by the big mean government. But this time, here they are, threatening to sue their own customers over software patents they supposedly own. It works like this: If you're a Microsoft customer who also uses, for example GNU/Linux, Microsoft wants to sell you some coupons that you can redeem for a distribution of Linux sold by a company (Novell) whom Microsoft has promised they won't sue. In other words, if you use free software, Microsoft wants you to pay them for it, even though it's supposed to be free. Or they will sue you.

I wonder how many companies have done well in the past with an approach like that? I can't think of any.

Microsoft has a storied history of killing off its competition. It would like to do so with OSS, except this time, they can't rely on their time-tested tactics for doing so. Microsoft managed to kill off or buy most of their competition 10 or so years ago, back when selling software in boxes for money was the norm. Sometimes they won by selling better products, but not very often. Sometimes they won through better marketing, but a lot of the time, they won by dumping software on the market for free, removing customers' incentive to buy software from someone else. When you own the desktop and the office suite, you can afford to do that, but it's pretty tough to do if you don't. In the late 90s I remember thinking it had gotten to the point where, unless you sold something really specialized that Microsoft didn't also sell, you were going to have to give it away just to get it into someone's hands. I couldn't see the point of doing that. But that's essentially what's happening now. Companies all over are giving software away for free and charging for support, and making money at it. People like it. As the last company on earth who makes money from the sale of software, Microsoft isn't happy about it, but they made this bed they're lying in.

Microsoft isn't saying exactly which of its patents are being infringed. Big surprise. They have a lot of patents. There's one covering "spring-loaded" folders (whatever that means). There's another one involving "lists of items", and still another one covering the use of the number "4" in a mathematical expression. Real strong, important stuff, likely to hold up in court for 6-7 seconds before melting like a stick of butter in hell. They're going to have to get specific about the patents at some point of course, but I bet they will wait as long as they can before they do. It's in their best interest to approach this project like they approach the release of new software: Start out by spreading FUD, getting people excited (or scared) about what's "coming". Delay and stall, lather, rinse, repeat, and gather the money of anyone dumb enough to sign up along the way. At the end, when the truth is revealed and you find that you just waited 5 years for a bandaged-up copy of the same old thing, well, there you go. If they were to get specific about the patents that are supposedly infringed, people from the OSS crowd would be all over the code, removing the infringing elements within hours. If that was all Microsoft wanted, they could come clean and allow others to do the same.

But that's not the point. This isn't about stopping someone from doing "wrong". (If that was all they wanted, they could have closed up shop and committed ritual suicide on the front lawn years ago and saved us all a lot of trouble.) No, they want to extort money from people, because they're running out of legitimate ways to make it for themselves. They spent something like $700 billion on the development of Vista, and all bragging to the contrary, sales are not good. It's Windows XP with a 4GB clown suit on, and no one cares. They sold off assets and claimed that the resulting influx of cash was due to Vista sales. Pathetic. Their public image is suffering, too. Instead of the cuddly/smart/iconic Bill Gates at the helm, they now have Steve Ballmer. The man seemingly can't manage to appear in a photograph without looking like some kind of ghoul from a sci-fi movie. He would actually look cooler if his jaws opened horizontally like the alien from "Predator".

It will be interesting to see how this all turns out. The OSS community has some legal ammo of its own, not to mention a lot of big friends in the corporate world (IBM, etc.). Some of those companies own patents that Microsoft currently infringes. If Microsoft turns on its own customers and starts suing people over patents and "coupons", they're going to look like idiots, and probably get punched in the eye in court.

Microsoft have cost people countless hours in lost productivity and stress because of the general junky and insecure nature of their software. They've helped to create a whole sub-species of the human race who don't know how easy and fun computers can be, thinking that "Computers == Microsoft", and that regular breakdowns and lockups are just part of the way computers work. Will someone there please just throw the ring into the volcano and get it over with?


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