At this point in time, many of the people that take an active interest in the free software movement have taken a glimpse of how the future will be, regarding of course the battle between the two prominent desktop Operating Systems; Microsoft Windows and Linux.
To us, the outcome is undeniable; Linux will eventually become the OS of choice for the majority of the Personal Computers in the world. The only questions that remain however are: “When will that happen?” and “What major hurdles are in store?”
Regarding the second question, I am starting to foresee a move that I believe MS will have no choice but to make.
Windows will go free
…free as in free beer that is.
But first, some background.
It is widely understood how Microsoft got so much popularity among the desktop users even though at that early times there were products that could easily outperform and outclass MS offerings.
Although my knowledge of the 80s are scetchy at best, from what I understand, the major contestants for the OS of choice were:
- Unix – Which even though stable and secure, was also forbiddingly expensive and user-unfriendly. Mainly used in Universities and Servers, it was never really considered for PC use
- Mac OS – Which offered excellent ease of use but at a high cost when you included hardware, as it was meant for professionals
- Amiga – Which although obviously superior as a multimedia system to the IBM/PC-DOS combination, was primarily a gaming system and never took off as a home system. In the end it died of reason that are out of context for this post
- MS-DOS – The system that offered considerable ease of use at a very affordable price. Taking into account of all the IBM PC Compatibles that sprung up, lowering hardware cost (My first PC was an 8088 Hyundai IBM compatible). It is no wonder then that businesses decided to go for that choice, providing MS and IBM with the necessary funds to continue.
However MS-DOS and later MS-Windows did not become widespread because of the cost but rather because of the piracy.
MS did not care about people buying a cheap IBM compatible and then putting a pirated copy of MS-DOS/Windows on it (although most of the time it was already pre-installed as OEM). They had no way to hunt them down and it just wasn’t worth it. Getting money from Enterprises was and still is the major income source of MS.
What this widespread use meant however, is that almost everyone started to learn IT skills using MS products, and when Amiga flopped, all the gaming crowd fled to the only affordable and capable choice – Wintel.
The rest if almost too widely known for me to analyze but the gist of it is that once MS had the controlled majority (and later monopoly) of home desktops, they used it to further consolidate their position using Threats, shady dealing, aggressive tactics and of course FUD (See Browsers Wars, Monopoly use, Breakup with IBM, etc). They still never worried about people ripping them off; by then, they knew that it was to their benefit . The “Free Loaders” could wait.
Vista is overpriced, as windows always were for someone who always expected the OS for free, as is the case with the majority of gamers and power users. Furthermore, people in developing countries just cannot afford Windows on top of the hardware costs.
As other have said, MS does not care, although it pretends it does and hurts honest users with schemes like OEM windows that you are forced to buy with a new PC.
This time however, Linux is here and this time, MS’s opponent is safer, ethically superior, completely incorruptible and immune to monopolistic tactics and generally just plain better than windows. The only thing keeping windows users from leaving is Lock-in
- Gamers are locked-in because gaming studios are blind or lazy enough to support only MS and DirectX
- Professionals because specialist applications choose to support only Windows
- Enterprises switched to Active Directory are locked-in because MS will not allow anything else to correctly and freely integrate to their infrastructure.
The only ones not currently locked-in, ironically, are the simple users that just want to surf, play a movie, download stuff, send emails and other mundane (nowadays at least) tasks. They do not care about shiny Aero graphics and they will be the ones initially migrating to Linux,when they understand what an OS upgrade means in Software AND hardware costs.
And believe it or not, simple users outnumber gamers and professionals.
When people realize that Linux is not that difficult after all, then they’ll tell their friends and an avalanche effect will take place. Once employees start to come pre-trained on Linux instead of windows, corporate environments will find it that the migration costs are not so big after you take out the re-training. The rest will be just a matter of time.
Now, I believe MS cannot stop this from happening eventually, but there is a way for them to delay it enough to successfully lobby for a software patent reform or another sneaky way to hurt the free software movement. That way is to five Windows for free to the home user.
They will attempt to delay the migration on grounds of cost, but they will keep the license cost for enterprises. That is all they ever needed after all.
Of course, in the end, they will not be able to compete in quality but until then, all of us may have to continue to suffer with no driver support or professional apps.
We are already seeing how the Open Source moniker is beginng to fray at the edges. Because it does not possess the ethical background of free/libre software, people are using the term “Open Source” (or simply open whatever) for things that not even do they not mean the same thing, but occasionally go contrary to its core methodology. In effect, the idea itself of “Open Source” is becoming corrupted.
Now think what will happen when MS suddenly releases “Free Windows”? For non IT people, who have real difficulty making a distinction between Free Software and Freeware, Free Windows would be in the same field. They will not know, and possibly not care, that we mean Free as in Free Speech.
Maybe MS will succeed in a way to pollute the term, but ultimately, I do not believe they can truly corrupt it, and I sincerely hope that the idea of Freedom is not distorted.
So here we are. The OS wars – and maybe some would go even further and call them Development System wars or some such, and I’m talking Cathedral VS Bazaar stuff – are only just beginning and MS, for all its new bells and whistles in their new OS, is set to fail, unless they realize it.
Once they do, I believe we will see something that we never would expect 5 years ago. Free windows for the home user.
And all of this, because of Free Software.
 The Irony of course here being that the people that thought were hurting MS, the crackers that removed copy protection and spread serial keys, were actually promoting MS monopoly.