When Free Equals Evil

Simon & Hecubus There’s a dark side to the Wired article I mentioned earlier [Microsoft Giving Away Developer Software]. Most people like free things, but when is free (as in beer) a bad thing? When somebody’s trying to get you drunk and take advantage of you. Wired touches on how Microsoft is using the free bundle in its war against Adobe’s Flash. I don’t know enough about either Silverlight or Flash to argue relative merits, but I do know Microsoft well enough to worry that they may succeed on purely non-technical grounds. After all, they are the master strategists of “free equals evil”.

Marketplace Squeeze-Out

Remember Netscape? (You get bonus points and a free bottle of Geritol for you if you remember Mosaic.) They made a business out of a web browser, and that eggs-in-one-basket strategy certainly contributed to their decline.

Microsoft successfully drove Netscape out of business by including Internet Explorer with Windows for free. The first IE was horrible, but its icon was there on everybody’s desktop, begging to be clicked. Don’t underestimate the compulsion to click that shiny, candy-red button when it’s right in front of your face. People don’t wage years-long legal campaigns to remove desktop shortcuts out of a sense of aesthetics. IE improved with time, and consumers weren’t as quick to whip out their credit cards for Netscape. That hurt, but it was the loss of corporate sales that deprived the one-trick pony of its bread and butter.

IT professionals had a harder time arguing in jargon-free terms why management needed to pay for another program when there was something free on every machine they bought. The truth is, IE wasn’t free. Its direct cost was built into Windows and every PC where Microsoft’s other squeeze-out tactic was working brilliantly. Exclusive contracts with hardware manufacturers gave them an unassailable beachhead in the Browser Wars.

Every Windows user is still paying indirectly for IE: ActiveX was the cluster bomb that unpaved the way for our current security crisis, but it wasn’t the first time Microsoft compromised a product’s integrity for a short-term win. Other IT dinosaurs may remember the stability hit NT 4 took because Microsoft pushed the graphics handling up the stack and allowed it memory-protection-free access to the executive layer. I hate performance shortcuts that diminish a system’s stability or integrity.

The strategy worked; Microsoft won the Browser Wars, and it took the industry almost a decade to climb back out of that hole. Thanks largely to Firefox and Safari, browsing the web is evolving again. I’m personally enthralled by Safari 3’s ability to move tabs around within and between Windows. Hmm, I suppose I don’t mind the monopolies that give me the best product, hence my love-hate affair with Apple.

Hearts and Minds, Bait and Switch

Would it surprise you to know that Microsoft promised a full XML-based format for Office documents back in 1997? It surprised me when I attended an XML conference in Seattle. I also got to meet Larry Wall, eat expensive sushi on the IE product manager’s tab, and met a good friend that indoctrinated me into the ways of perl mongery, beer, and the Philly food scene. There was also a second incident with fried shrimp heads, but that’s better not mentioned in polite company.

The ongoing controversy about ODF is the last act of a decade-long attempt my Microsoft to coerce an open standard to their own ends. They’ve done it with other things, but never before with the quiet persistence of wrestling XML away from an open standard and into another proprietary format for holding people’s documents ransom. Oh, and don’t you think Adobe’s not doing the same right now, but they’re a lower-case evil compared to Microsoft’s all-in-caps EVIL.

Their strategy wasn’t unlike the grassroots Christian Fundamentalist takeover of the US government in the 70s and 80s. Instead of school boards, Microsoft seeded open standards committees with their people. I won’t say these people were active agents of evil; some seemed truly interested in doing the right thing in the free-as-beer sense. Maybe a few of them were sleeper agents waiting to go off, but others were just good people that would eventually get squeezed between their two masters, the open ideal and their leash holder.

Microsoft’s first few attempts to generate XML (and even HTML) from Office documents were, well, horrible. It was a half-dozen years before Office 2003 could generate something better than a well-formed mess with more tagging and attributes than content. I’d already developed a system that converted Word documents into rich SGML for SB, so I know that it’s a difficult but solvable problem. My talents aside, it’s hard to believe that however-many Office programmers working within Word’s source couldn’t accomplish in six years what took me about one. Clearly there was a lack of motivation on somebody’s part to solve the problem well.

The markup and codes in Word are all presentation focused and lack any sense of context beyond range, paragraph, and document. A useful (SG|X)ML document has a structure, expressed as a DTD or XML Schema, and depends heavily on context–especially for output specifications, expressed as CSS, FOSI, XSL/T, etcetera. Supporting this complexity would require a fundamentally different Word. That would have a leveling effect since the first few versions would lack features, have bugs, and have to play catchup to some of the better structured document editors of the day. Before even being EVIL, there’s a self-preservation issue here.

Thing is, Microsoft only appeared to plod forward clumsily toward the promised XML-native office formats. They had a two-pronged attack on the open standard. The first prong was the format bait-and-switch that worked so well in the Browser War: Embrace the standard, then start saturating it with custom features to support functionality only found in Microsoft products. This didn’t surprise anybody. What surprised me was the second prong, a legal maneuver claiming copyrights on the schemas that define the “open format” documents to effectively ban compatibility in competing products like OpenOffice.

With everybody more concerned about web pages and records management lately, I haven’t been paying as much attention over the last few years. A recent Ars Technica article [Analyst Group Slams ODF, Downplays Microsoft ISO Abuses] includes the whole cast in media res. What I thought was the last act was just the end of the first part of a trilogy with part two titled “The Two Formats”. I also saw something about Microsoft trying to create a PDF competitor; I might actually pop some popcorn and plop down on the couch to watch that one unfold. It sounds like King Kong Versus Godzilla!

Free Now, Not So Much Later

The common thread here is that what’s free now can cost you later. When the free beer is flowing, make sure you either keep your wits about you or have some good friends watching your back or taking your keys. Otherwise you may wake up in an alley with your pants down around your ankles and a big Windows logo tattooed on your ass.

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