Spoutin' Off: Microsoft is more about dominance than quality
By Michael Rau
May 28, 2007
One of these days, I hope to gain some insight into the mind of Steve Ballmer, the CEO of Microsoft. For years I've been trying to understand why these guys continue to pursue their goal of virtual global domination instead of just becoming a valued and trusted member of the greater wired community.
Last week, Microsoft announced that it had found 235 instances of their patents being violated within various and sundry pieces of open-source software. The two most prominent examples are Linux and OpenOffice.
Patent infringement cases are amongst the most expensive to litigate. The complexity of the issues involved is enormous. Consequently, rather than identifying the actual incidents of infringement, Microsoft is demanding that open-source software providers figure out exactly which patents they're infringing upon and then beg for mercy from Microsoft.
I do believe this represents the height of hubris, not to mention cowardice.
First off, Microsoft's claim certainly doesn't represent a presentation of fact. Their accusation could be what my old pal Ross Perot used to call "gorilla dust." This refers to the way a great ape will throw dirt and debris into the air during a fight to try and distract his opponent.
If Microsoft really has a case, why not actually take legal action instead of just pitching accusations? The two most obvious explanations are that they either have a lack of confidence in their legal standing or that it's just a not-too-subtle attempt to engage in corporate terrorism - something which I feel Microsoft has engaged in in one form or another as a regular business practice for most of its history.
But let's just suppose for a minute that there's a thread of legitimacy to their claims. Based on recent rulings made by the U.S. Supreme Court, it's likely that many patents held by Microsoft may not be valid anyway.
In the ruling, which came down at the end of April, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote: "Granting patent protection to advances that would occur in the ordinary course without real innovation retards progress and may, in the case of patents combining previously known elements, deprive prior inventions of their value or utility."
What this basically means is that many patents, particularly in the high-tech industry, probably shouldn't have been granted in the first place because the underlying innovation is obvious and ubiquitous.
As an example, considering the vast differences in the underlying code sets utilized by Windows and Linux, can anyone possibly believe that some snippet of unique Microsoft code made it into Linux?
No. It's much more likely that certain elements of all operating systems share common elements.
Linus Torvalds, the wunderkind behind Linux, responded to the accusations from Microsoft by saying: "If Microsoft were to actually tell people what patents they claim we violate, we could either laugh in their face and show prior art, or just show them to be obvious, or we could do things differently."
So until the boys in Redmond step up to the plate and actually throw a pitch, it's all just hyperbole, as far as I'm concerned.
But I think there's a more important consideration to make here.
To me, Microsoft's action is an obvious admission that they're losing the software wars, without actually admitting to it.
Open-source software has been steadily chipping away at Microsoft's market share for some time now. Linux can be found throughout corporate and government networks. Open-Office is being adopted as a standard office suite in a growing number of office environments. And the growth of the Firefox browser and Thunderbird e-mail client have been widely reported.
The reason is simple. They're superior products, and Microsoft knows it. Microsoft has been so obsessed with control over the years that they've preferred to crush or absorb competition, rather than just trying to dominate the market by producing a better product.
Nothing Microsoft produces is superior. Not their operating system, nor their office suite, nor their browser, e-mail client, media player, server software, databasing system - nothing.
The world of software has pretty much become differentiated into Microsoft and everyone else. Microsoft took an early lead, thanks mostly to complicity on the part of the federal government, which turned a blind eye toward Microsoft's (and most everyone else's) grotesque monopolization of the industry.
To this day, I remain ashamed of the Justice Department for their fawning acquiescence to the software behemoth during the Netscape anti-trust investigation a few years ago.
The Microsoft culture has become the technological equivalent of a family that's been inbreeding for generations - sort of like some European royal bloodlines. They're rich and powerful, but have become grossly flawed at their most fundamental level. They find only themselves to be attractive.
If Microsoft wants to survive and flourish in the long term, they have no choice but to abandon their imperialistic ambitions and join the rest of us as content members in the bigger wired family.
I imagine they would have much to contribute if only they could learn to work and play well with others.
Anything else, including their patent infringement claims, is just so much gorilla dust.
Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.
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