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Gates holds forth on the ‘pervasive Linux’ threat

And he's all over the shop, as usual...

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Bill Gates is taking Linux very seriously - but apparently, still not seriously enough to actually understand it. Speaking to the Microsoft MVP Summit on Tuesday he bracketed Linux with other 'kill the company' threats to Microsoft, giving OS/2 as a prime example. Or at least, that's what Peter Galli of eWeek tells us he said. Over at Microsoft Spin Central the transcript of the speech says he said something entirely different, and much more tedious. We've no idea what's going on here, but if its a trustworthiness thing, Peter gets our vote.*

And his report's much more interesting anyway. In this, as a kind of warm-up to getting Linux wrong, Gates gets OS/2 wrong. For about six years, he says, it was a technology that people said could kill the company. The Register does indeed remember saying things to this effect, but also remembers not having a great deal of company. Nor indeed do we remember even the most determined OS/2 partisans saying this much beyond four years. OS/2 2.0 announced in October 1991, and its window of opportunity closed with the launch of Windows 95.

Gates is also wildly, and characteristically, imaginative on the effort IBM put behind OS/2. "IBM... putting all their energy, their leverage on ISVs, bundling it with their systems..." Untrue, untrue, and untrue.

The serious point here is that Gates himself was probably the one who believed for longest that OS/2 could kill Microsoft, that this paranoid delusion prompted much of Microsoft's anticompetitive actions against the product, and that he happily believes what he wants to believe, manufacturing, repeating and embellishing his own eccentric version of history. We look forward to hearing what he has to say about Linux after it has killed the company - that will surely be entertaining.

In the meantime, a similar paranoid delusion drives his view of Linux, and Microsoft's response to it. On Tuesday, he described Linux as an unusual kind of competition, "out there and very pervasive," then warmed swiftly to his incompatibility and unreliability theme. There are more incompatible versions of Linux than all other operating systems put together, and the diffuse development model means that people "do innovations on top of Linux, they don't all get tested together and they're not all consistent with each other."

So here Bill is arguing in favour of one company being responsible for calling all the shots as regards the OS, meaning there's a single consistent platform to build applications for, and you might also have noted the merest hint of a commercial for Microsoft's testing and certification operations. In the world he describes here, patches and service packs never break apps, apps never break other apps or the OS, everything works, and the single controlling company is benign, in no sense an evil, robber-baron monopoliser. You won't recognise this world, but don't worry because it's the world according to Bill, as he imagines it will be, provided you just trust him and leave him to it.

Also in the world according to Bill, the Tablet PC is something that the disparate open source groups could never do, because it is the product of three groups, Office, user interface and handwriting, working together as one in order to produce a single, integrated, unified product. It may look to you like a box with the products of these groups stuck - somewhat uneasily - together, but you are wrong. Even if you were right, well, you'd be wrong by 2.0, trust Bill. And if you think it wouldn't be difficult to achieve similar levels of functionality and integration on a Linux-based tablet, using open source technology, well, you're wrong about that too.

Gates's sound bite, characteristically, is stolen: "It's almost like a 747 where, yes, it's easy to do a wing, it's easy to do a tail, but to produce a wing and a tail that work together under all conditions, that's tough, and that's the position we're in." This will remind some of you of a very old joke:

"Unix Airlines: Each passenger brings a piece of the airplane and a box of tools to the airport. They gather on the tarmac, arguing constantly about what kind of plane they want to build and how to put it together. Eventually, they build several different aircraft, but give them all the same name. Some passengers actually reach their destinations. All passengers believe they got there."

One version of the full gag can be found here, and among the rest of them you'll find:

"Windows Air: The terminal is pretty and colorful, with friendly stewards, easy baggage check and boarding, and a smooth take-off.  After about 10 minutes in the air, the plane explodes with no warning whatsoever."

It's characteristic of Bill that he can unconsciously plagiarise one bit without the rest having any resonance for him. It's also characteristic that he tags Linux with the defects of Unix, describing it as "basically Unix." Well, that is arguable, but in grasping the similarities without noting the differences he fails to grasp the nature of the competition. He does want Linux to turn into Unix, clearly, and provided it does not, he may well be in a position to give that 'kill the company' speech from a different standpoint in a few years time. ®

* Our well-honed sense of the surreal was piqued by the ExtremeTech implementation of Peter's report. ExtremeTech, as you may have noticed, runs eWeek news, usually the first couple of paragraphs, with a link to eWeek if you want to read the rest of the story. Now, at time of writing, if you go here you will get ExtremeTech's implementation of Peter's first two paragraphs, but if you "Click here to read the rest of this eWeek story," at the bottom, you will get this. Saboteurs? Friction within the stable? But somebody's sure to fix it soon.

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