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Bill, Bill, Bill

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This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on January 25, 2002
(Issue 2004, Remodeling Your Computer)

I think I'm beginning to see why late-night talk-show hosts and stand-up comics so loved President Clinton.

Just as Clinton's libido was a reliable source of material for those who deal in topical humor, so can technology writers depend on Microsoft to keep providing grist for their (our) mills.

The latest flare-up in the World of Bill Gates concerns San Diego's Michael Robertson. When last heard from, Robertson was selling to media giant Vivendi for bushels of money and setting off to start a new business.

Now that business, Lindows, finds itself in the glare of the legal department at Microsoft (and thanks to reader Stan Logue for the tip on this story, as I'd missed it).

Copyright and trademark infringement, don't you see – "Lindows" being too close to "Windows."

Stopping by, one learns that Lindows is a new operating system being developed that will run both Windows and Linux applications.

Or at least it will when finished.


Still, having great experience at unfinished software – particularly operating systems – Microsoft is wasting no time in suing Robertson, demanding that he stop using the name "Lindows."

Which is rich, seeing as Windows itself has never been anything more than a cheap rip-off of the old Xerox Parc operating system (which also gave illegitimate birth to the Apple Lisa/Mac desktop system). Heck, Windows' predecessor (and the underlying technology behind Windows 95/98/ME), MS-DOS, wasn't much more than a rip-off of C/PM and Unix – taking the file commands of C/PM and (later) the directory structure of Unix.

Besides, the very term "window" was used to describe individual frames or units in a graphical user interface (the "desktop" environment that nearly all computers use today) long before Microsoft ever decided to create a GUI.

Will Microsoft next sue to try to stop the use of the X-windows open standard for Unix GUIs?

Outside of the groundbreaking Word (which when released for the Mac in the mid-'80s redefined the word processor, giving us the look and ease of use we all expect today, even if we're using WordPerfect, StarOffice or even Lotus), Microsoft has never been an innovator. Despite all the hundreds of millions Gates has poured into research and development, Microsoft seemingly always ends up following someone else's lead – only to take over market share based on pure muscle.

So for Microsoft to now start whining about copyright and trademark violations is a bit, well, embarrassing for them, frankly.

If Microsoft is to prevail in a copyright and trademark case, they'll have to prove that the market is likely to be confused by the Lindows name – to convince a judge and/or jury that potential customers are going to buy Lindows because they really think they're buying Windows.

Which seems a tough case to make, even when you have billions on hand for your legal department. (News reports in 2000 indicated that Gates kept several billion cash in his legal funds for the now-won fight against the feds' anti-trust case; gotta spend that on something – why not quashing Robertson before he gets another going?)

When you're a huge conglomerate like Microsoft, you're fair game for a certain amount of satire. The rest of us have a recognized legal right to mock Microsoft – to a point. Whether using a name like "Lindows" is protected free speech will be up to the courts to decide, but as the recording industry found out, Robertson isn't exactly a wilting flower when it comes to taking on the big boys in court.

 * * *

A couple of months back, I suggested that in light of the Justice Department's giving up its antitrust case against Microsoft, Congress and the states should require all public agencies and those seeking coveted and lucrative public contacts to use non-Windows computers in doing the taxpayers' work.

Edward Teyssier wrote in and pointed out that 1) prohibiting the purchase of Microsoft products would probably be struck down by the courts and 2) the idea is not to punish Microsoft, but protect consumers.

I stand corrected on both counts, and Edward's proposed solution is better than mine as well. While he would still use the popularity of government contract work as a lever, his proposal is not to name any operating system by name – but rather, to dictate that only those firms using an open source operating system would be eligible to win a contract.

Thus, as Edward points out, Microsoft would then have a choice: Open up the source code for Windows or lose not only sales to every government computer, but also to those tens of thousands of companies that hold government contracts.

If the Windows source code was made public, then any software company could write Windows applications that took advantage of all Windows' features – the end result would be programs that ran faster and crashed less often.