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NS Internet Column

The insecurity of email can be a wonderful thing. Someone at Microsoft writes an ill-considered memo, and within days it is sitting on Eric Raymond’s web site for the world to read. Raymond is not really a hero suitable for New Statesman readers: he is a libertarian programmer whose web site boasts "I am an armed man, prepared to use deadly force to defend my life and my freedom. I support the Second Amendment and firearms rights". — so that’s one solution made more difficult for Microsoft’s PR.

The memos he has got hold of and published with copious annotations show more clearly than anything which has so far come out in the anti-trust trial in Washington how to make money in information economy, and why it is that the Internet threatens even Microsoft’s status. They concern a program named Linux on which most of the Internet already depends. It is an operating system, like Windows: the software on which all the useful stuff you see and type into invisibly depends. Microsoft’s fortune is based on the fact that it owns the operating systems that make a PC a PC; and in the best tradition of monopolists it has steadily made greater and greater profits from this fact. Ten years ago the operating system represented about 3% of the cost of a new PC. Now you can buy a computer a hundred times more powerful for a fifth of the price — but Windows represents 10% of the price you pay for it.

The second important thing about Linux is that it is written by volunteers. It was started as an undergraduate programming project by one man: a Finn named Linus Torvalds who published what he had made on the Net in 1991.Since then any other programmer has been able to download on his work and improve on it — and others can improve on their work in turn. The result is that the program has grown steadily more powerful and more reliableThe labour of thousands of loosely co-ordinated programmers, working for glory rather than money, has actually proved more effective than that of all the incentivised battery chickens of Redmond.

The third thing to make Linux is that it is free. You can it on CD stuck to the front of several of the doorstop computer magazines in W.H. Smith this month, or you can download it from the Internet if you don’t mind waiting till next month for the enormously long download to creep through your phone line. There are people who will charge for supporting it; and others who will charge for selling manuals. But the software itself is available for almost nothing, legally.

For most normal people, the result is of limited use. It’s a lot like connecting to the Internet was in 1991: when, after huge efforts, you get it all working, there remains only one unanswerable question — what is it for? But if what you want to do is to run a web site, Linux is the thing. If you just want to hang an old computer off the net, Linux is perfect, too. Vinod Valloppillil, the author of the Microsoft memos (which seem to have been written for the eyes of Bill Gates himself) said that he tried Linux and Netscape navigator on an old computer that had been running Windows NT and Internet Explorer; and found everything went 30-40% faster than before. Linux is free, Navigator is free; Internet Explorer is technically free, but Microsoft charges £80 for the upgrade to Windows that makes it run acceptably and £800 for Windows NT. It’s a lot to pay for a forty percent drop in performance.

Valloppillil sees this as a very serious threat to Microsoft’s future. He suggests that Microsoft fight back by changing the rules of the game

The Internet works on standards: agreements between programs as to how they will exchange information and what sort of information that will be. Valloppillil suggests that Microsoft must "enhance" these standards, offering customers something extra, for which the immediate monetary price may be negligible. The long-term cost, of course, is a commitment to use only Microsoft products in the future, for which any desired price may be charged. I suppose it might work.

In the meantime, geeks all around the world see Linux as their salvation. Several companies mauled by Microsoft in the past, such as Corel (who now own Word Perfect) are making their software available for it. I’d say we had just heard the bell tolling for Bill Gates as it tolled once for Ozymandias — if it weren’t for one thing: it still has hardly any software that talks to people and not other computers.. Last week an Uebergeek friend of mine phoned up from San Francisco. He has written masses about Linux in the past, and even installed it at home. This time, though he was in a panic. "I have to go to Johannesburg to make a speech, and I need to get Linux off this laptop so I can do some real work."

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