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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing
It seems as if we've lived this story before. A vulnerability is found in Microsoft's Windows operating systems. Microsoft issues a patch on July 16. On August 16, the Internet gets hammered by a bunch of infected Microsoft systems that are trying to spread the infection and perform a denial of service attack on some of Microsoft's servers (see CNet's article, "Worm exploits a widespread Windows vulnerability").
It's tempting to criticize Microsoft for their shoddy programming, but I have to wonder what all those Windows users were doing for a month. Maybe they were on a beach somewhere sipping cool drinks. Maybe their book of the month was particularly interesting. Maybe they got together in small groups to sing the Monty Python SPAM song. But, they weren't applying Microsoft's update to prevent the worm from exercising its control over their computers.
Still, 18 months after Bill Gates stated that "Security is top priority," Microsoft seems to be reactive rather than proactive on security. All I can say is thank goodness we have Polish hackers who can discover these kinds of problems for Microsoft. One has to wonder whether Microsoft's quest for innovation includes any innovative software quality control (maybe they can buy those Polish hackers!).
Microsoft's strategy so far seems to be "We'll innovate and you'll pay for our innovations." Yet, they don't have a very good track record of being innovative or of leading technology movements. They've been very good at being reactive. IBM's building a PC - Microsoft cobbles together an operating system (they originally were just trying sell their compiler and other application software to IBM). Apple changes the personal computing paradigm and Microsoft hacks together a work-alike which after 3 or 4 tries begins to resemble what Apple started with. The Internet explodes in growth and after a while, Microsoft wakes up and produces a browser, buys and re-brands some web development software, and develops the notoriously insecure Internet Information Services (AKA their interpretation of a web server).
Microsoft's Stumbling Block
The Internet has proven to be Microsoft's stumbling block. Microsoft's tremendous success at exploiting an open hardware standard has suddenly become stymied by open software standards. Over the last 10 years they seem to have been reinventing the wheel in an innovative, but somewhat square shape. To make money, they must produce proprietary software over which they have total control. Internet software, however, has been through an extensive sifting process so that after almost 15 years, what we have left are the best and most reliable strategies for moving information across a world-wide network. Microsoft's reinventions of that technology can only be pale shadows of their open source counterparts.
And here we get to the part where I put on my prognosticator's hat and predict that the need to sell proprietary software will ultimately lead to Microsoft's failure. Why? The reason is that we'll get tired of buying it. I think software has evolved a critical mass of program base so that ideas can be implemented in a world-wide programming community without the need for large-scale capital investment to support that development. LINUX is an instance of the idea of an operating system kernel. AbiWord is an instance of the idea of a word processor. If you are a writer, you can claim ownership of your instance of the expression of an idea, but you don't own the individual words -- the building blocks -- which you compile to express it.
The open source movement has already had a tremendous impact on the computing industry, whether you accept the pundits who say it's good or the pundits who say it's bad. When you can affect the corporate strategy of an IBM or Oracle, I'd say that's definitely an impact. Companies which embrace the concept of open software standards will reap an ultimate benefit. In the next version of it's semi-open OS X, Apple will be incorporating a derivation of the FreeX86 version of the X11 windowing standard. This means that thousands of open source and even proprietary applications will be just a compile away from running on Mac OS X. Apple is adding value to its proprietary operating system by expanding the community of software that can run on its computers. Windows, with it's closed and proprietary structure, can't hope to compete.
The Version Game
I've long contended that it is the globalization of the Internet which has made the open source movement such a tremendous success. Once you have a critical mass of programmers, testers, and users, self interest is translated to public interest. I think that most open source developers take on projects to solve problems they are facing and the ability to find others with same concern makes it possible to create a quick solution, at least quick in software development terms. The U.S. government can try to legislate and regulate so that control of intellectual property remains the right of a select few corporate entities, but unless George Bush's plan for world domination is a success, the rest of the world will flow around us like a river surpassing a boulder stuck in the mud.
I'm a bit tired of the version game. For example, the Finale music software folks would like me to buy Finale 2003, but they haven't even created a native OS X version and the Finale 2000 I have makes all the notes I need to make. So, I don't think I'll be buying the eventual equivalents of Word 2015 or Windows XX (eXtra eXpensive) either. Instead, I'm interested in computing solutions which expand my choices rather than narrow them. And who knows... maybe if I ever have any spare time, I'll start an open source music scoring project.