LJ Archive


Dealing with the Devil

Nicholas Petreley

Issue #155, March 2007

Who sings the praises of those who got rich taking bribes from Al Capone?

Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Novell has failed to learn from history, and is doomed to repeat it after having made a deal with Microsoft.

Before I continue, consider that I am one of the most pragmatic and therefore least religious among Linux advocates. I see nothing wrong with good proprietary commercial software from reliable sources. I think the DCMA, not TiVo, is the problem when it comes to TiVoization. Let me add that when IBM behaved as a controlling monopolist that did not work in the best interests of its customers, I repeatedly blew the whistle on IBM's monopolistic business practices. (Obviously, I've been writing for a long time.) Now I am a fan of IBM. As with IBM, my criticism of Microsoft is not personal. If Microsoft ever changes its ways of doing business, as IBM did, I will gladly support the company. But Microsoft has shown no signs that it has abandoned its Machiavellian tactics.

My point is that the following is not the rantings of a free software or Linux zealot, nor is the following the rantings of a mindless Microsoft basher. It is simply the truth, as best as I can see it.

Microsoft is an enemy of Linux, if not the enemy. Anyone who thinks otherwise needs to read Steve Ballmer's statement that everyone who runs Linux owes money to Microsoft. But it's worse than that. Microsoft is a company run by megalomaniacs bent on control and domination of every market the company enters. Therefore, every time Microsoft makes a deal, it makes it with the ultimate goal of marginalizing the competition—not destroying all competition, lest it risk another bout with DOJ, but marginalizing it enough to prevent it from posing a threat to its dominance and market leverage. For every deal Microsoft makes that seems beneficial to anyone but Microsoft, you will find an ulterior motive in line with the aforementioned goal. For example, when you peel back the layers of Microsoft's philanthropic deals for Windows, you'll find the internal memo that instructs sales to offer such gestures only where Linux is a threat.

History is littered with the battered bodies left from such deals. I find it somewhat poetic that I first heard the term “coopetition” at a Novell press event, long ago. Novell announced that it made a deal with Microsoft, and then subjected editors to such an overdose of the words “coopetition” and “partnering”, it is still painful to write these words today. I don't recall the date of the event, but it was roughly 1–3 years before Windows NT essentially buried NetWare. Granted, Microsoft probably offered as an alternative the refusal to make IPX work properly with Windows 95. But Novell was gutless, all the same, and paid for its mistake.

There isn't enough room to document all the deals Microsoft made that marginalized its competition, so I'll leave it to students of history to recount them. Put simply, nobody has ever walked away from a deal with Microsoft as a winner, at least not in the sense of a true winner or long-term winner.

I've drawn a comparison between Microsoft and Al Capone before. The last time I did so, I quoted from the movie The Untouchables as to how to deal with Microsoft. Malone (Sean Connery) says to Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner), “Here's how you get Capone: he pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to hospital, you send one of his to the morgue! That's the Chicago way! And that's how you get Capone. Now, do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?”

The last time I quoted that passage in a column, Marc Andreesen wrote to tell me he taped that column to his bathroom mirror to remind him daily how to “negotiate” with Microsoft. I don't know if it did any good, but I hope it helped give Netscape the courage to go to the DOJ.

Some people are content with the Microsoft/Novell deal because Microsoft is going to promote SUSE, and Novell stands to make money from it, at least in the short term. But when it comes to the story of Al Capone, whose praise do we sing? Do we honor as heroes the men who got rich taking bribes from Capone? Or do we honor as heroes the Untouchables, those who were not willing to profit from a deal with the devil?

To those who think the Microsoft/Novell deal is good for Novell and for Linux, I say let's revisit this issue in five years when the current deal expires. I suspect the ulterior motives will surface before then, but if not, I predict those who praise Novell and/or Microsoft will be in for a rude awakening five years from now. I hope I'm wrong, but if I'm right, I pray someone at Novell with some guts will post this column on his or her bathroom mirror before it is too late.

Nicholas Petreley is Editor in Chief of Linux Journal and a former programmer, teacher, analyst and consultant who has been working with and writing about Linux for more than ten years.

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