Same Ol’, Same Ol’

Around 1992 or so, when I worked at Digital Equipment Corp., my manager asked me to do a presentation on open systems and DEC’s view of that topic for a large group of potential customers.

Believe me, there is no topic more boring than a presentation about open systems -- especially from me, the proprietary VMS guy at the time. The pitch was simple and actually made sense: "Open" meant you strictly adhered to industry standards when they existed and you made your product conform to them -- including publishing results from standard test suites.

Back then, we were being out-marketed by almost everyone, all of whom claimed some variant of Unix was the only path to this vague but worthy goal of "openness." My job was to convince the audience that the universe of open systems should be large enough to accept any product that conformed to standards, including VMS.

My presentation followed a marketing guy from Microsoft, who wore a nice suit and talked about a major product that would come to market soon called Windows NT. Although nobody really knew what NT stood for, and few had seen tangible evidence of a product yet, we all knew this thing was going to be big and that somehow it would be good.

When my turn came, a good portion of the room got up and left. It seems they weren’t interested in what some skinny bald guy from the local DEC office in Minnesota had to say about open systems, and they could not have cared less about the Unix vs. VMS controversy. I still remember one guy who stayed to heckle me about how great PCs were and how he couldn’t understand why DEC didn’t just dump all its products that were unrelated to PCs.

You name the problem, PCs were the answer. According to this heckler, PCs were simple, inexpensive and they were all the same. And with Windows NT coming soon, he predicted every computer in the world would run the same operating system, which meant support costs would plunge, applications would be plentiful and cheap and the whole world would reach some sort of nirvana. PCs were the true path to openness and no other technology made sense or had a place in the world.

I asked the audience if they really wanted to get rid of the choices available to them in the marketplace and standardize PCs. To my utter amazement, many of them did. So much for my powerful -- but boring -- message on open systems.

My district manager shook my hand afterward and said it was the best presentation he had ever seen. A little later, my immediate manager told me it was the worst presentation she had ever seen. She suggested I take some classes on public speaking.

That was a bizarre day in my life. At the time I thought we were all being conned, but I’ll bet that heckler and the rest of the audience have changed their minds about the PC by now.

Fast forward to 1999. Same stuff, different day.

Microsoft -- no longer the young, eager upstart with a better idea -- is now a mean, incumbent vendor with a legacy to protect. Linux and the open source movement is the young upstart.

This was vividly brought to life for me as more than 1,000 people and I recently watched a panel discussion with representatives from Microsoft, Sun, IBM, Caldera, Red Hat, and the GartnerGroup at the Minneapolis Convention Center. I was amazed as the other panel members -- to the audience’s approval -- ganged up on Microsoft. This time, Linux and the open source movement represented the true path to openness because customers who choose Linux will no longer depend on a single, controlling vendor for bug fixes and timely updates. Instead, these will be publicly available from a worldwide community of developers who will contribute a never-ending stream of new ideas for free.

More threatening to Microsoft, according to this view, is if Microsoft doesn’t soon produce a low cost version of its Office suite for Linux, somebody else will build an open source set of desktop applications to replace it and Linux will soon replace Windows on every desktop. If this isn’t a threat, I don’t know what is.

For the record, Microsoft says it has no plans to deliver a version of its Office suite on Linux, and that the open source movement ultimately denies choices to consumers because it offers no protection for intellectual property. And, Microsoft asks, do we really want to get rid of all the choices available to us?

Here we go again. Where have I heard this before? Is history repeating itself? Who in their right mind would believe some rag-tag group of grass-roots radicals could alter the balance of power in the world’s most fundamental industry? If I were Bill Gates, I would be worried about this one. --Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is Chief Technology Officer of Cross Consulting Group (Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at