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Judge: Linux can't break Windows monopoly

Don't flame him -- if he thought it could it wouldn't be a monopoly...

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MS on Trial Linux and the open source movement won't succeed in breaking Microsoft's hold on the operating system market, said Judge Jackson in his findings of fact last Friday.

Jackson accepts that Linux has been growing in popularity, but rejects the 'resistance is futile, victory is inevitable' viewpoint common in the Linux community. Linux partisans can view this as a mix of good news and bad news.

Jackson's conclusion that Linux, Be, network computers and other alternative operating systems can't shift Microsoft unaided means that he's coming down on the side of Microsoft being a monopoly with no effective competition. By saying this he's clearly rejecting the case Microsoft somewhat hurriedly made for Linux being a serious competitor.

The Microsoft pitch is that the sudden rise of Linux just goes to show that things move very fast in the IT business, that competition can come out of nowhere, and that Microsoft therefore isn't a monopoly really.

If on the other hand Jackson had agreed with the people who think Linux will triumph in relatively short order under its own steam, he'd at least to an extent have been agreeing with Microsoft.

Confusingly, that also means that that Linux partisans who take this view are agreeing with Microsoft too, although Microsoft obviously only wants Linux to look a bit like serious competition, rather than inevitable nemesis.

Jackson doesn't focus on Linux to any great extent, which is reasonable, as the OS didn't have a great part to play in the trial proceedings. He does seem to understand the model, and although he probably underestimates open source, his arguments are sustainable, at least for the next few years.

"Several ISVs," he says, "have announced their development of (or plans to develop) Linux versions of their applications. To date, though, legions of ISVs have not followed the lead of these first movers." Similarly: "Although a few OEMs have announced their intention to pre-install Linux on some of the computers they ship, none of them plan to install Linux in lieu of Windows on any appreciable number of PC (as opposed to server) systems."

Jackson is correct in noting that the announcements of Linux support by various high profile developers has not been followed up by mass defections of Windows developers. Similarly the Linux support from PC vendors has not resulted in volume sales of Linux machines. One could say "yet" in both of these cases, but Jackson is talking about "any time in the next few years." He's not looking beyond that, and we should remember that Linus Torvalds himself doesn't see Linux as breaking Windows' dominance of the desktop for another three years (see story).

The situation that will apply over this period, Jackson says, is the one that applies today. He sees potential rivals in the operating system market as being hobbled by the applications barrier, and Microsoft's dominance being maintained by a "cycle of consumer preferences and developer incentives [and] Windows enormous reservoir of applications".

The judge certainly understood that open-source developers were "disposed ideologically to focus their efforts on open-source platforms like Linux" and added: "Fortunately for Microsoft, however, there are only so many developers in the world willing to devote their talents to writing, testing, and debugging software pro bono publico."

It's a matter of definition of course, but it seems probable that the number of Linux/open source developers is rising relative to Window developers. "A small corps may be willing to concentrate its efforts on popular applications, such as browsers and office productivity applications, that are of value to most users. It is unlikely, though, that a sufficient number of open-source developers will commit to developing and continually updating the large variety of applications that an operating system would need to attract in order to present a significant number of users with a viable alternative to Windows. In practice, then, the open-source model of applications development may increase the base of applications that run on non-Microsoft PC operating systems, but it cannot dissolve the barrier that prevents such operating systems from challenging Windows."

The judge may well have underestimated the momentum of the movement, but right now it's a matter of opinion - it's possible to believe Linux will displace Windows, but it's not yet possible to prove that it will. Linux will clearly make ground, but we don't know for sure how far it will get.

Anyway, the judge's views weren't exactly helped by the dearth of expert evidence about Linux at the trial. Some examples show how hopeless the dramatis personae were: John Warden, Microsoft's lead counsel, said: "As Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux operating system has shown, one person in Helsinki, Finland can quickly write the core of a sophisticated operating system that is now used by millions of people."

Jim Barksdale, then Netscape's CEO, was asked if he knew what Linux was and who wrote it. He replied: "Yes. A young man in Scandinavia, Linus Myhrvold or something."

Franklin Fisher, the DoJ's primary economist witness, didn't know what Linux was when he was deposed before the trial started, but subsequently looked at a Red Hat box. Richard Schmalensee, Microsoft's economist, also obtained the Red Hat box, but didn't open it. ® Complete Register Trial coverage

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