The more I think about Microsoft, the more I realise that they are, possibly for the first time, seriously cornered (or surrounded, depending on how you want to see it). A little history will clarify why I think so - and why I think that this might really be the beginning of the end for Microsoft.
When Linux started its real explosion, in 1998, I told my friend Andrea something along these lines: "They [Microsoft] can't do anything about it. [Linux] will get bigger and bigger. It will invade the server market. Then, it will invade the desktop market. Then, it will crush everything else". Andrea's arguments against my prediction were the usual ones made at the time - mainly the lack of drivers, software, and games. Remember, there was no OpenOffice.org back then, game consoles weren't as established, newsagents were still full of Windows-only CDs, and you had a lot of trouble even installing a printer.
Those problems slowly dissolved. Some of them are still there (I still can't easily load photos in my Canon camera!), but it's clear to pretty much everybody (including Microsoft) that it's only a matter of time.
In a few years, Linux became easy to use. There was OpenOffice.org; the gaming market became more and more dominated by gaming consoles; you could plug most peripherals in to your Linux machine and they would just work. Microsoft tried everything to prevent this, but in the end Linux proved to be unstoppable. Linux gained momentum more and more, rather than staying as a "fringe system", in its own little corner. It was 2003, and Linux's momentum needed to be stopped - or at least slowed down.
The next war frontier was in the patents battlefield. Microsoft tried with SCO (even though they deny doing so). That first attempt was unsuccessful - although it did create considerable grief to the Linux world. Linux probably does infringe some meaningless, have-done-that-before patents which should never been issued in the first place. However, with Linux having the backing of big companies in terms of patents, the penguin's last possible week-spot seemed to be covered as well. Microsoft was apparently left with no weapons.
This is when I start looking up to Microsoft's perseverance. At that point, if I had been in their shoes, I am pretty certain I would have ended up staring at a blank wall, thinking: what on earth am I going to do now, since every single attempt at beating Linux wound up in a dead end? Well, Microsoft didn't stare at a blank wall. They looked at their enemy, and looked for any possible fault. Fragmentation was one of them. The struggling of several distributions was another one. The need to re-establish the patent front was paramount.
"Divide et impera", "divide and conquer", must have been their motto. By getting struggling distributions to sign patent agreements, Microsoft managed to create a situation where parents actually mean something - and maybe even start a factious war between Linux distributors; possibly, alienating people from Linux. They started that strategy. Novell. Linspire. Xandros. They all fell into the trap - as companies do when they are offered vast amounts of cash for very little in exchange. But, the big fish didn't take the bait. Ubuntu (the desktop leader) and Red Hat (the server leader) refused the agreements. They didn't need the short term cash injection to survive - they could focus on the long term instead. Microsoft ended up paying vast (somehow undisclosed) amounts of money to catch minor distributions in a meaningless deal - meaningless for Microsoft, for the distributions, for the market. But, I am sure Microsoft expected this. They were going to be patient.
Then, the GPLv3 came along. Microsoft hated the GPL before Friday, because - unlike the BSD license - they couldn't just rip the networking code and shove it into Windows NT, and charge money for it. They hated it because there were just so many good GPL libraries out there, and yet they had to rewrite a lot of them from scratch. They hated its "viral" element to it - if anything contained GPL code, then the whole piece of software needed to be released under the GPL, or under a compatible license. They hated it because it was just so popular, and it was not what they wanted people to use. Since Friday, I imagine this feeling changed. Now, with the GPLv3, they really hate the GPL. GPLv3 is a much stronger license, and it stops Microsoft from creating patent deals with other distributors. Their plan hit a snag.
Starting those deals so soon was, in my opinion, a considerable tactical mistake for Microsoft: they should have waited until the new GPL had come out. Microsoft's actions prompted changes that were deliberately aimed at stopping such deals. I know Richard Stallman, and I am sure he would have wanted anti-agreement clauses in the GPL from day 1. However, the opposition against those clauses would have been stronger - and he would have looked liked a paranoid fundamentalist. Microsoft's actions turned a hypothetical (albeit real) threat into something very tangible and current. The GPL needed to prevent this - and now it does. Would the GPLv3 have been modified to prevent such deals if Microsoft hadn't started their lucrative "agreements" with struggling distributors? Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows? And, it doesn't really matter anymore. Without the GPLv3, Microsoft would have been able to create pressure on any struggling Linux distribution in the future. Canonical (Ubuntu) and Red Hat are financially strong right now; but what about in one, two or three years? Nobody likes to be tempted by large amounts of cash when they really need it. With the new GPL, that unofficial bribe cannot be made anymore.
So, here I am. I am trying to imagine myself in Microsoft's shoes, and I find myself staring at a blank wall, thinking: what on Earth am I going to do now? The trick of suing somebody for "unspecified issues" has been tried by SCO. That path is now not workable. They cannot do any more deals with Microsoft. They see Dell happily sell laptops preloaded with Ubuntu - another distribution they hate. They see OpenOffice.org and ODF becoming more and more prominent (although they are fighting a very smart battle to get their own proprietary file format recognised as a "standard"). Linux was meant to be the new kid on the block trying to clamber up with great difficulty. Now, Microsoft are the ones struggling with their defence, rapidly running out of bullets.
Can Microsoft save themselves? The theory of Microsoft "going open source" has been tried before. However, I don't think it's really going to happen. They have a huge cash influx from Windows and Office. It will take years and years to see a marked decline in that influx - as OpenOffice and Ubuntu slowly, slowly take Microsoft's market share away. But, freeing their software doesn't seem to be in Microsoft's radar. They wouldn't know how to do it, where to start, and follow it up. Despite what they would like to think, they are good at one thing: marketing and selling proprietary software, while lobbying governments and pressuring OEMs to make sure things go their way. A "new" Microsoft simply wouldn't be Microsoft.
My wall is still blank. I must admit, I await the next events with some anticipation. I don't like wars, but I do enjoy seeing skilled combatants fight.
One of them is fighting for its survival - a cornered giant struggling because it only knows one way to fight (by brute force) and it's finding that the enemy is somehow countering every attack, is adaptable, impalpable, and is winning. this time, it seems there are no plan Bs in sight.
So, is this really it?