Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

14 June 2004

Monopolia Delenda Est

(or, Why Unix, Linux, IBM and Apple are Slowly Gaining Market Share)

I don’t think Microsoft is evil. It follows the very same ethic as every other profit-making company in our increasingly globalized world. It only wants to make as much money as possible. Its workers appear genuinely interested in consumer welfare, user satisfaction, and innovation. At least, so they tell us. And as they keep reminding us, they are all very smart and very innovative.

But Microsoft does seem to share key traits with the old Soviet Union. It is very big. It is very powerful. It seems to rely on central planning and “command and control.” Nothing in over 100 million computers worldwide seems to change much without marching orders from Redmond. Nerds and computerphobes alike wait helplessly by their computers for “updates,” just as commissars once waited by their red telephones for word from the Communist Party Central Committee in Moscow.

Like the old Soviet Union, Microsoft is very secretive. Secrecy is the essence of its business. It sells little besides software, and it has to be sure no one can steal that. It therefore guards its source code as closely as the Communists once did the true fate of the Romanoffs. It is as hard to get software design secrets out of Redmond today as it was to steal state secrets from the Kremlin in the KGB’s heyday.

As any nerd will tell you, “source code” is the most important and most useful form of computer programming. Source code tells how programs work. It lets you understand and change them. Most important, it lets you fix errors in them, including security vulnerabilities. Without source code, it’s hard—and often impossible—to design smoothly interoperable programs or to fix problems that inevitably crop up in any complex system.

Microsoft lets few outside Redmond see any of its source code. Right now, it’s involved in a death struggle with the European Union’s antitrust authorities, which think that disclosing a little bit of source code might help the industry and soften the edge of Microsoft’s monopoly. “Over our collective dead bodies,” the Gatesians seem to say.

That’s the chief reason why many nerds hate Microsoft. They don’t resent Microsoft’s commercial success. Most of them would love to be among the hundreds of nerdy millionaires that Microsoft has made. What they hate is that Microsoft’s iron secrecy makes them helpless. Without source code, they can’t change or fix their systems efficiently. They can’t modify or customize Microsoft’s products. They can’t fix errors. They can’t make their computer systems more secure. All they can do is watch helplessly as their programs crash, or as viruses and worms invade their computers. Then they have to fold their hands and wait for a “fix” from Redmond, hoping it’s not too late or incomplete.

Like workers on collective farms, grown men and women who otherwise have the knowledge and experience to help themselves are reduced to children at Stalin’s knees. Microsoft’s monopoly and secrecy deprive them of the independence and self-reliance that are basic values of our society, not to mention points of pride in the computer industry. Can anyone wonder why independent computer programmers are not Microsoft’s biggest fans?

Freedom, says President Bush, is God’s gift to mankind. I don’t know about that; God hasn’t spoken to me lately. History does tell us, however, that freedom works better than its alternatives. The predominance of free nations—in war and peace—is no accident. Among other things, we got the Bomb first because brilliant men like Einstein, Oppenheimer, Teller, Fermi and Segre felt more comfortable and worked better in a free environment than under the Nazi boot. They didn’t come to our shores to think and do their best work because they loved central planning. And you can bet that not one of them would have appreciated waiting for updates from the Mount in Redmond in order to finish his daily work.

Freedom is also a basic principle of evolution. Our entire biosphere relies on it. Biologists call it “genetic diversity.” Billions of organisms worldwide grow, develop, change and mutate, adapting to new conditions on their own and at their own pace. Their freedom to do so is literally what life is all about. These diverse, mutating organisms are not all the same. They don’t use a single plan of DNA or a single operating system, and they don’t take orders from Moscow or Redmond. If they did, our planet would be about as rich and diverse in life forms as the Gobi Desert.

This point is hardly untested theory or science fiction. Nor is it a matter of intellectual curiosity alone. It’s a matter of intelligent policy, and it may be a matter of human survival.

Over the last few decades, scientists and policymakers have worried greatly about genetic diversity in crops. Our science has produced wonderful new strains of wheat, rice and corn that grow faster and require less fertilizer than natural strains. The new strains also resist the strong chemicals used to kill pests. The process of finding new crops is not a recent creature of biotechnology; it began with hybridization and plant breeding over a century ago.

So what’s wrong with this process? Nothing yet—at least we hope so. But suppose a single synthetic strain of crops becomes so fruitful and productive that farmers worldwide adopt it exclusively. Gone is genetic diversity. Along comes a virus or other plant disease, newly mutated for this bold new universal grain, and there goes the world’s food supply. Biologists worry a lot about scenarios like this. They are a lot more probable and more seriously threatening than the largely fictional “Frankenfood” scares that European Luddites conjure up.

As computer users have been slow to learn, there’s a direct analogy between the computer industry and the “doomsday” scenario of a sick universal crop. We’ve already got a near-universal “crop” installed in over 90% of our personal computers. It’s called “Windows.” Some teenager in Eurasia lets loose a virus, and 100 million computers get sick. Commerce halts and the world holds its breath while Redmond cogitates.

Like the brave men at Stalingrad waiting for orders from Moscow, nerds who have the knowledge and ability to help are reduced to impotence by Microsoft’s secrecy and intellectual property. All they can do is fold their hands and wait for Redmond to act.

Is there an alternative? There may be. It’s called Unix. In virtually every way that affects economic, social and security policy, Unix is the antithesis of Windows. It’s not designed or centrally planned out of Redmond or anywhere else. Its source code and design secrets are not locked up; they are open to all. They are available on line from dozens of Websites, mostly for free. Anyone with knowledge, skill and patience can understand, change, adapt and fix Unix at will. No one needs permission or help from Redmond or anywhere else.

And Unix is marvelously diverse. It has dozens, if not hundreds, of variants, all constantly changing and mutating under the loving care of a worldwide community of independent computer programmers, connected through the Internet. This diversity evolves under the aegis of something called a “general public license.” That license gives the whole world equal access to the basics of Unix, on the sole condition that those who change it contribute their own efforts to the common “genetic pool.” (Recent legal challenges to the validity and scope of the general license are another story. They may be a last-ditch effort by those who want to control by central command.)

The result is a close analogy to the genetic diversity in crops that, if we are smart, some day may save the world from starvation. Like the basic blueprint of plant DNA, Unix evolves to fit the needs and circumstances (and sometimes the whim!) of businesses, governments, and users worldwide. No one controls its secrets. No one holds the keys to changing it or fixing errors in it. No one prevents anyone, anywhere from making it better or more secure. No one needs orders or help from Moscow or from Redmond.

Few people outside the computer industry know the real story of Unix. It’s the oldest widely-used operating system adapted for personal computers. It’s been around for over twenty years. It’s therefore had four or five times as much “shake out” time as most versions of Windows, each of which seems to last just a few years, on the average, before being replaced by a new version just as secretive and inaccessible as the one before. Like the auto industry in the 1950s, much of the software industry, led by Microsoft, still relies on planned obsolescence, as well as secrecy, to maintain its income stream. Unix just plods along, remaining open and free and getting better and more versatile as time goes on.

Not only is Unix longer lived and better tested than Windows. It has a wide variety of versions and uses. Classic Unix has long been a favorite for scientific and technical development. Linux—a version of Unix streamlined for personal computers—is becoming increasingly popular in business and Web applications. Apple’s new operating system, called OS X, is just a proprietary variant of a common version of Unix, with a very pretty user interface. Sun Microsystem’s Solaris is similar. IBM reportedly has taken the lead in computer servers in part by emphasizing Unix-based operating systems. Even some versions of Windows itself are reportedly based upon Unix, although with Microsoft’s legendary secrecy no one outside Redmond really can tell which or how much.

Our nation is now celebrating the leadership and mourning the loss of Ronald Reagan. He may or may not have singlehandedly beat the Soviet Union and won the Cold War, as some claim. But one thing is certain. He stood unambiguously—and often quite eloquently—for economic freedom and self-reliance and against “command and control” central planning.

Had Ronald Reagan lived, and had his condition allowed him to understand the computer industry during the last decade, I doubt he would see Microsoft as do many so-called “conservatives” today. I doubt he would view Microsoft’s entrenched domination of the world’s computer industry as a triumph of free enterprise. Rather, I think it would remind him of Soviet Moscow during his presidency.

He would think hard about the defects that brought down the Soviet Union: uniformity, rigidity, conformity, secrecy, arrogance, strict command and mindless central control. He would see little difference between the motives for central control: political on the one hand and commercial on the other. He would understand the needs of individuals and businesses worldwide freely to change, adapt, adjust, and fix their own computers, on their own initiative, without orders from Redmond. He would recognize the needs of independent software firms to make their products work with widely used computer operating systems. Most of all, he would understand the toll on flexibility, independence and self-reliance that always attend having to wait for central authority to act.

Reagan might even see the analogy to genetic diversity. If he did, he would certainly worry about the susceptibility to viruses of 100 million computers, all running the very same type of software designed and controlled from the very same place. With a gleam in his eye, the Gipper might even foresee the fall of Redmond to the inexorable forces of freedom and diversity, just as he foresaw the fall of an Evil Empire that others less prescient thought might last for centuries.

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