Prolog

24 Jul 2006

Tim Danton explains why open-source software will never pose a threat to Microsoft

There can be no doubt that Microsoft is afraid of the open-source movement. Last month, as part of the conditions for allowing us to include Office 2007 on the cover disc, Microsoft Corp - in many ways a company distinct from the far cuddlier and more approachable Microsoft UK - wouldn't allow us to put any open-source software onto the same disc.

But if Microsoft believes open-source developers are going to disappear if it closes its eyes and puts its fingers in its ears, then it's wrong on two counts. First, the open-source movement is here to stay, as shown by the success of products like Firefox and Apache. And second, it desperately needs competition - if only to show off just how good its products often are.

For instance, Microsoft specifically named OpenOffice.org as a program we couldn't include on the cover disc. That's an incredibly short-sighted move. The whole point about Office 2007 is what it offers over and above OpenOffice.org, that it allows you to create more sophisticated documents more quickly. If I was on the board of Microsoft Corp, I'd be demanding that magazines bundled both side by side so that people could make their own comparisons.

If anything, Microsoft should be afraid of the commercial companies that are providing free software. Just as Tesco provides loss leaders to tempt you into its stores, so the likes of Zone Labs and Grisoft (the company behind AVG anti-virus) are luring potential customers with free editions of their programs - and then hoping a significant proportion will upgrade to the professional versions.

Notably, Microsoft itself is one of the biggest proponents of free software. Just look at its Windows Defender app or MSN Messenger. It's released Express versions of its entire Visual Basic range for free too; quite a change in policy from a few years ago when you'd have to pay hundreds for the privilege of developing software using Microsoft's products.

Free software is a fact of life in today's computing world, and it's set to become even more dominant in the future. In the 1980s, you had to pay a fortune for any piece of software; prices dropped as competition increased in the 1990s; and, in the home if not the business, prices are tending to zero as the software houses focus on a worldwide battle for market share.

Of course, none of these companies are charities: the reason they're so keen to gain market share is so they can "monetise". Google has proved you can do it with Google Ads, and now others are following suit.

For example, Yahoo's new Messenger product is all about commercial tie-ins, with some of its benefits being free - weather updates, direct links to your friends' blogs - but the real heavyweight inclusions are the links to Amazon and Ebay. If a new book is released, or a product you're interested in put on auction, you'll know about it within seconds; and Yahoo will harvest some of the financial reward.

So where does that leave open source? To a certain extent, it's moved away from that hackneyed beard and sandals image: PC Pro's website is hosted on an Apache server, while the Content Management System - the tool used to publish articles to the web - is entirely open source too. Indeed, 60% of the world's websites are hosted on servers powered by open-source software, and PC Pro has its own dedicated Open Source column.

But as we discovered in our free software feature this month, John McCreesh from OpenOffice.org would rather be speaking to Hello magazine than PC Pro about open-source software. Right. You just need to take a look at www.gimp.org and compare it to picasa.google.com to realise why that isn't going to happen. There are barely any images on The GIMP homepage; it's just plain text and links. Picasa hits you with a stylish screenshot accompanied by a huge Free Download box.

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