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MS ‘Software Choice’ scheme a clever fraud

Monopoly by another name

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Microsoft's new "Software Choice" campaign is all for your right to choose... as long as you choose Microsoft. It's too bad that Intel and the U.S. Government couldn't see through the rhetoric.

Microsoft is worried about Peruvian Congressman Edgar Villanueva's proposal for his nation's government agencies to standardize on Free Software for their own internal use. But Villanueva makes an important point: everybody has to deal with the government. If a government uses proprietary software, its citizens will probably have to use the same software to communicate with it. A government web site that only supports Internet Explorer would lock citizens into that Microsoft product. In contrast, a government site using open standards and avoiding patented software would allow citizens to choose between many different kinds of software to access the site. Free Software, also called Open Source, is itself a kind of open standard - its source code is its own reference. Developers of proprietary software can use that reference to create interoperating programs, without infringing on the actual Open Source code. Thus, when a government uses Open Source, it assures its citizens a choice to purchase both proprietary and Open Source software for communicating with their government. The people's choice will be based on factors like functionality, quality, and convenience, rather than on customer lock-in.

Villanueva also wants the government and people of Peru to have a software infrastructure that they can afford - to pull themselves out of poverty and bootstrap an e-commerce economy. Free Software's low total-cost-of-ownership is attractive to them, and the ability for Peruvians to support Free Software themselves, because they have source code and the right to redistribute it, means economic independence. This could provide them with the foundation for many e-commerce-enabled businesses based on the labor of the Peruvian people and the natural resources of their nation. But there's one sort of business that Free Software won't facilitate in Peru - lock-in of customers to a proprietary software product.

Microsoft has responded with a clever Software Choice campaign that, read quickly, appears to fight discrimination and call for choice, while actually promoting policies that would lock out Free Software. For example, it promotes the embedding of royalty-bearing software patents into "open" standards. Of course Free Software producers don't charge copyright royalty fees, and thus can't afford to pay for patent royalties, so they would not be able to implement any standard that contains royalty-bearing patents. Housed at industry organization CompTIA, the cynical campaign is clearly driven by Microsoft, repeating rhetoric we've heard from them before. It also counts Linux-supporter Intel as a member. The U.S. government has also bought into the Software Choice rhetoric, sending their ambassador to urge that Peru reject Villanueva's proposal.

How was Intel taken in? They didn't have any choice. Intel can't afford to lose Micrsoft's support for its new bet-the-company Itanium 64-bit processor family. Without Microsoft, the Itanium will become another DEC ALPHA - a 64-bit architecture that lost much of its market after Microsoft announced that Windows wouldn't support it. Intel needs more than a just a Windows port - it needs an excellent windows port, with Microsoft's enthusiastic support egging customers on to make the transition to the new architecture. Microsoft's price for this is for Intel to downplay its Linux involvement and support Microsoft's monopolistic initiatives.

Unlike Intel, the U.S. Government clearly did have a choice. That government appears to have lost much of its will to prosecute its anti-trust case against Microsoft since the presidential election. Its actions in Peru actually help to support Microsoft's monopoly.

The language of Software Choice is in the tradition of "soft money" political campaigns - it's written to oppose something without ever really mentioning what it opposes. I'll analyze the principles of Software Choice, to illustrate how they actually mean no choice at all:

Procure software on its merits, not through categorical preferences. Public entities should procure the software that best meets their needs and should avoid any categorical preferences for open source software, commercial software, free software, or other software development models.

They feel that a government should not decide, 'we will only use Free Software for government functions,' as in the Peruvian proposal. But shouldn't a government, as a software customer, have that choice? If making that choice will assure the people of that nation the ability to choose between more different software products for interfacing with their government, both Free Software and proprietary, isn't it the right choice? And isn't the fact that Free Software can be freely used, redistributed, and modified a "merit"?

Promote broad availability of government funded research. When public funds are used to support software research and development, the innovations that result from this work should be licensed in ways that take into account both the desirability of broadly sharing those advances as well as the desirability of applying those advances to commercialized products.

This is a swipe at government-funded participation in software development that is placed under the GPL , the license that is used on the Linux kernel and many other Free Software projects. The research agencies of various governments join the community in developing Linux. In the U.S., it's been the subject of projects within NASA, the Department of Energy, and even the National Security Agency. The GPL mandates that anyone has the right to give you a free copy of the Linux kernel, which makes sense to the taxpayers who have already paid for part of its development. But Microsoft would like you to pay for that software twice: once with your taxes, and a second time when you buy it from Microsoft.

However, Microsoft is also a taxpayer - although in some years they've managed to avoid U.S. corporate income taxes entirely. As a taxpayer, perhaps they should be able to embed the result of government-funded work in their products and charge other taxpayers for it a second time. But in that case, that work should be licensed so that all of Microsoft's competitors can make use of it as well - and that means without restrictive licensing terms and royalty-bearing software patents that would shut out Open Source. After all, the people who write and use Open Source are taxpayers as well.

Governments oppose monopolies because they are bad for the customer. Thus, the licensing of taxpayer-funded software should fight embrace-and-extend, the tactic that Microsoft uses to gain a monopoly lock on a market through the use of deliberate incompatibility. That's only fair to Microsoft's competitors, and to all of the users who don't wish to be locked into a single software product - those people are taxpayers too. But the licenses that are best at fighting embrace-and-extend are the very ones that Microsoft eschews: the GPL, the LGPL, and the Sun Industry Standards Source License. Microsoft calls those licenses "intellectual-property impairing" because they all mandate some degree of disclosure that would allow programs from other vendors, including Open Source programs, to interoperate with their products.

Promote interoperability through platform-neutral standards. When these standards are open and available to all through reasonable and non-discriminatory licensing they help developers to create products that can interoperate with each other. It is important that government policy recognize that open standards - which are available to any software developers - are not synonymous with, and do not require, open source software either for their adoption or utility.

The so-called reasonable and non-discriminatory licensing refers to the embedding of royalty-bearing software patents in industry standards. Proponents say that such royalties are OK, as long as they are the same for everyone, and not too high. But Free Software producers don't collect copyright royalties, and thus can't afford to pay royalties to patent holders. They would be locked out of implementing these standards. The Software Choice folks also attempt to assert that it's not important for a standard to accomodate Open Source at all.

Maintain a choice of strong intellectual property protections.

I don't disagree with this principle, as long as the proponents of strong intellctual property protections don't attempt to block those who prefer weaker protections on their own software from interoperating with the rest of the world's software. But this is just what they are doing - through the use of restrictive software patents, proprietary file and intercommunications formats, and through digital rights management systems that block Free Software from playing video disks that its users have legitimately purchased. Their use of intellectual property protections should be only to prevent their own products from being unlawfully duplicated and resold, not to prevent others from creating or using their own software and interoperating with other software in a free market.

The Free Software community has been criticized for being good at opposing programs like Software Choice, but not as good at producing its own platforms to promote. Thus, I've tried to put together a Sincere Choice platform - it replaces the cynical Software Choice with a more positive set of principles that really would assure the software user of a broad choice between interoperable products, both Open Source and proprietary. The principles of Sincere Choice are:

Open Standards

Intercommunication and file formats should follow standards that are sincerely open for all to implement, without royalty fees or discrimination.

Choice Through Interoperability

No user should be required to use a particular product simply because other users do. Competing products should interoperate with each other through open standards.

Competition by Merit

Software vendors should compete fairly on the merit of their products, rather than by attempting to lock each other's products out of the market. Besides functionality, merits include the copyright and patent policies attached to a product, and the disclosure of file formats and communication protocols so that other software may interoperate.

Research Availability

The people pay for government-funded research, its fruits should be available to all of them equally. We promote Open Source / Free Software licensing of taxpayer-funded software and data as a means of distributing research results fairly.

Range of Copyright Policies

We include the supporters of a broad range of different copyright policies, from Public Domain through Open Source and Free Software to Proprietary. We support use of the GPL and LGPL licenses when appropriate. We assert that Open Source and Proprietary models can be used together effectively.

Freedom to Set Policy

Individual users, businesses, and government should all be free to set their own policies regarding what sorts of software they will acquire and use. They should not force a particular software paradigm or product choice upon others.

I've put together a web site for this fledgeling platform: SincereChoice.org.

Imagine a truly open market for computer software: one in which there were many interoperating products, truly competing on their merits rather than upon their vendor's ability to lock other products out of the market. Prices would be lower, quality higher, and we'd have a transition to a customer-centric view of the software business, away from the vendor-centric view that many of us, perhaps unconsciously, hold today. Or we could continue today's anti-competitive policies. Which one is your choice?

Bruce Perens is a Free Software evangelist best known for creating the Open Source Definition, the manifesto of Open Source.

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