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[rr] An Alternative to Microsoft Gains Support in High Places



>From NY Times: 
http://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/05/technology/05CODE.html?todaysheadlines

An Alternative to Microsoft Gains Support in High Places
By STEVE LOHR

Governments around the world, afraid that Microsoft has become too powerful 
in critical software markets, have begun working to ensure an alternative.

 More than two dozen countries in Asia, Europe and Latin America, including 
China and Germany, are now encouraging their government agencies to use "open 
source" software - developed by communities of programmers who distribute the 
code without charge and donate their labor to cooperatively debug, modify and 
otherwise improve the software.

 The best known of these projects is Linux, a computer operating system that 
Microsoft now regards as the leading competitive threat to its lucrative 
Windows franchise in the market for software that runs computer servers. The 
foremost corporate champion of Linux is I.B.M., which is working with many 
governments on Linux projects.

 Against this opposition, Microsoft has found itself in the uncommon position 
of campaigning for the even-handed competition of "a level playing field." 
And I.B.M., once the feared monopolist of the era of mainframe computers, is 
casting itself as a force of liberation from Microsoft, the monopolist of 
today.

 Microsoft worries that some governments may all but require the use of Linux 
for their powerful servers, which provide data to large networks of computer 
users. For the most part, the battle does not involve the kind of software 
that runs on the typical computer user's desk.

 To curb such moves, Microsoft is backing an industry group called the 
Initiative for Software Choice. The group lists 20 members - besides the chip 
maker Intel, a close ally, most of them small foreign companies or 
organizations. (Illegally stifling choice, of course, was precisely what the 
federal courts in the long-running antitrust case ruled that Microsoft did in 
the market for personal computer software.)

 The motivations and actions by foreign governments vary somewhat, but mostly 
they seem to be trying to ensure competition. That was the stance taken by a 
delegation of Chinese officials involved in developing their software 
industry, who visited the United States last month.

 In an interview, Jiang Guangzhi, director of a software development center 
in Shanghai, discussed the progress made in China on various Linux projects 
and emphasized that the government did not want one company "to manipulate or 
dominate the Chinese market." With its entry into the World Trade 
Organization, China is facing increased pressure to crack down on software 
piracy, adding to the appeal of free software like Linux, Mr. Jiang said.

 His delegation had attended the LinuxWorld conference in San Francisco, and 
met with I.B.M. executives and its Linux experts at the company's 
headquarters in Armonk, N.Y.

 Yet Mr. Jiang also spoke glowingly of Microsoft's involvement in China. The 
company set up a research laboratory in Beijing and recently made a 
commitment to invest $700 million in China over the next three years in 
education, training and research, and in investments in local companies.

 "We appreciate Microsoft's contributions," Mr. Jiang said.

 To Chinese Communist officials, it seems, Linux is a useful tool of 
pragmatic capitalism to pump-prime market competition to China's advantage.

 The support of open source software by governments around the world is 
rising. There are currently 66 government proposals, statements and studies 
promoting open source software in 25 countries, according to the Initiative 
for Software Choice. The policy statements and legislative proposals mainly 
encourage the use of open source software in government procurement, and 
nearly all of them have cropped up in the last 18 months.

 "It's growing, unfortunately, from our perspective," said Mike Wendy, a 
spokesman for the software initiative, which was founded in May.

 The impetus for the international activity was in Europe. A technology 
advisory group to the European Commission issued a report two years ago that 
termed open source software "a great opportunity" for the region that could 
perhaps "change the rules in the information technology industry," wresting 
the lead in software from the United States and reducing Europe's reliance on 
imports.

 As open source software, especially Linux, has spread, countries in other 
regions have also come to regard it as both a model of software development 
and perhaps an engine of economic growth. The government proposals and 
projects are efforts to position their nations to exploit a promising trend 
in technology.

 Source code is software rendered in a programming language that human 
programmers can read and understand, before it is compiled down to the 
digital 1's and 0's that the machine processes. Software companies, like 
Microsoft, typically guard their source code as a trade secret, and certainly 
do not allow outsiders to modify or redistribute it.

 In the open source model, the source code is freely published for all to 
see. Then, interested programmers - often all over the world, communicating 
over the Internet - work on a project to fix, modify and add improvements. 
These self-selected communities work out their own governing arrangements to 
determine when changes in the code are approved or rejected.

 The leading open source projects are Apache, the software most used for 
distributing Web pages to desktop computers, and the Linux operating system. 
The kernel, or basic engine, of Linux was initially developed by Linus 
Torvalds, a Finnish programmer who now works in the United States - though 
the operating system itself is a result of work from many contributors, 
including Richard M. Stallman, who leads a free software project called GNU.

 Just how far the open source model can go is uncertain. The projects rely on 
voluntary contributions from programmers who work at universities, government 
laboratories and companies. Money is made in the open source environment by 
supplying technical support, services and writing applications that run on 
top of the open source software.

 Linux has certainly gone a long way already. Though there are versions of 
Linux that run on desktop PC's, the real success of Linux has been as an 
operating system on larger data-serving machines, which power computer 
networks in corporations and governments and the Internet.

 The big market for computer server software is also crucial to Microsoft's 
future. Although the company controls a huge portion of the personal computer 
operating systems market, to keep growing it must push increasingly into the 
lucrative market for software that runs corporate and government data 
centers. It is there that Microsoft encounters what its senior executives 
have cited as the two most significant competitive threats: I.B.M. and free 
software, notably Linux.

 That combination, in Microsoft's view, could be particularly powerful, 
especially if open source software emerges as the most politically acceptable 
technological path.

 In Germany, for example, the lower house of Parliament adopted a resolution 
last November declaring that the government should use open source software 
"whenever doing so will reduce costs." The resolution also cited as 
advantages "stability" and "security." Microsoft's Windows operating system 
is often criticized for crashing too often and for being susceptible to 
computer viruses and security breaches.

 Then in June, the German government and I.B.M. announced a "far-reaching 
cooperation agreement" to use open source software in national and municipal 
government agencies. "The fact that Linux provides a true alternative to the 
Windows operating system," said Otto Schily, the German interior minister, 
"increases our independence and improves our position as a big customer for 
software."

 The German case, I.B.M. says, is part of an emerging pattern. "There's not a 
large government in the world we're not talking to," said Steven Solazzo, 
general manager of I.B.M.'s Linux business.

 The Initiative for Software Choice, the Microsoft-supported group, said it 
has nothing against open source software as such, but that a declared policy 
favoring one development model is a bias - a competition based on prejudice 
instead of the merits of the products.

 "All we're looking for is a level playing field competitively," said Peter 
Houston, a senior strategy executive in Microsoft's Windows group.

 As open source software moves out of its incubator of a comparatively small 
community of devoted software developers and into the commercial mainstream, 
customers - in governments and corporations - will increasingly see its 
limitations, Mr. Houston said. Windows, he said, has a wide range of tools 
and technical abilities that Linux does not have in a "comprehensive, 
integrated, easy-to-use" package.

 By contrast, Mr. Houston said, I.B.M. is mainly trying to convert its 
weakness in the operating-system market to its advantage by making money 
supplying the software - the ingredients that an operating system like Linux 
lacks - and collecting services revenue for putting it all together.

 "I.B.M. is just trying to move the value up the chain from the operating 
system," Mr. Houston said.

 In the end, market competition should determine whether Microsoft or Linux 
gains the upper hand.



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