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Attacks on open source

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on September 19, 2003
(Issue 2138, Computer Controversy)

There's no direct evidence linking SCO's recent lawsuit against the open source movement to Microsoft – but it's certainly raising some eyebrows.

It was Microsoft hit man Steve Ballmer who last year opened the first broadside against the open source community by calling free software "unAmerican."

SCO has now filed suit, claiming that the open source software license that governs the distribution and use of Linux (and makes all code in a Linux release public property) is illegal, and should be thrown out.

For those who haven't heard of SCO, the company publishes a fairly popular version of Unix – a platform that has obviously been hurt by the rising popularity of Linux. Why pay SCO hundreds of dollars per computer when you can install Linux for free?

What led directly to SCO's lawsuit is their claim that some of their proprietary Unix code has made its way into several popular flavors of Linux – even though SCO's detractors point out that SCO itself has distributed Linux in the past, and that it could well be the company itself that used that code.

Microsoft's dilemma

Microsoft has been even more hurt by Linux – if only because it is so very much bigger than SCO and so lost market share for Microsoft is much vaster than lost market share for SCO.

And yet, since Microsoft gave away its Internet Explorer browser for free in an effort to drive Netscape out of business (and gain more control over the way we all access the Internet), it would be foolhardy for Microsoft itself to sue the open source movement. Doing so would undoubtedly bring up many of Microsoft's arguments from its semi-successful defense of federal and state anti-trust charges related to the browser war – including justifications for providing free software tools to consumers.

Those same justifications would obviously apply to many open-source programs, if not the operating system (Linux) itself.

A risky move

SCO took a significant risk by pursuing litigation here. If they lose – and it's hard to see courts agreeing with SCO's premise that it ought to be illegal to give away software you write – their credibility in the marketplace is shot.

Of course, Microsoft's hostility to the open source movement goes back to the late 1970s, and the earliest history of the personal computer era. Microsoft was founded by Bill Gates and Paul Allen to sell a version of the BASIC programming language for the Altair computer. However, it turned out that many Altair owners would copy the Microsoft BASIC to punch tape or 8-inch floppy disk and share it with their friends.

This led to Gates' infamous letter to microcomputer users published as a full-page ad in the microcomputer press of the time, in which he lambasted software piracy.

It was more than just the sharing of Microsoft BASIC he was taking on, though – it was an entire culture.

Microsoft was one of the first companies set up to sell software to these new micro, or personal, computers. In 1975, when the Altair came on the market, there were few if any software-only companies around. The companies that made and sold the mainframe and mini-computers – IBM, Cray, Digital – also sold any software that ran on their machines. Or clients wrote their own.

And so when the first microcomputers began appearing as kits in the late 1960s and early '70s, computers inexpensive enough for individuals to buy and own, if you wanted to run a program on them, you had to write it yourself.

Most folks doing this either subscribed to the handful of microcomputer magazines then on the market, or belonged to a local computer hobbyist club – and in both venues, software was freely shared and traded.

This was the mindset Gates found threatening – and it was the mindset that led to today's open-source movement, in which software like Linux, OpenOffice, the Apache web server, the PHP scripting language and many others are maintained by a community of volunteers and are given away for the asking.

This is what SCO and Microsoft brand as "unAmerican," as violating the tough-as-nails American frontier spirit.

Yet it needs to be pointed out that shared community efforts are every bit as American as the solitary frontiersman in coonskin cap. Early Americans relied on each other for survival – from the old barn-raising parties on the frontier to the village commons in New England and the public schools created in each township on the prairie, communitarianism is deeply embedded in American culture.

Truth is, the open source movement is as American as apple pie and baseball.