Fringe Benefits

3 minute read
Josh Quittner

With the possible exception of my marriage license, I’ve never agreed more with a legal document than I do with Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson’s findings of fact in the Microsoft case. Of course he’s right when he says Microsoft enjoys a monopoly on the desktop–more than nine out of 10 PCs use Windows. Of course Microsoft used its control of the marketplace to hammer competitors–just ask Netscape. And of course Microsoft could charge more than the fair market price for Windows–and do so for a long time without losing market share. After all, what’s the PC user’s alternative to Windows? (Apple wiseguys, quit smirking.)

But what about Linux, the free operating system used and loved by some 15 million techies and evoked so often by Microsoft witnesses during the trial? Isn’t Linux a viable alternative? Not according to the judge. He describes Linux as a “fringe” operating system that’s unlikely to challenge Microsoft.

Linux, you’ll recall, is “open source” software, designed, updated and debugged by an army of volunteers. Although its advocates insist that it crashes far less often than Windows, and it is undeniably cheaper, the judge says Linux can’t beat Windows for the simple reason that there aren’t enough programs written for it.

Judge Jackson makes a strong argument. The operating system with the most applications “wins” the market, he says, because it has the broadest appeal to consumers. As users settle on a platform, developers build more applications for it, which attracts yet more users. “What for Microsoft is a positive feedback is for would-be competitors a vicious cycle,” Jackson wrote. With more than 70,000 Windows programs out there, it’s almost impossible for any upstart to come along and grab significant market share.

Just how many applications run on Linux? That’s a good question–so good, in fact, that the answer doesn’t appear anywhere in Jackson’s findings. The truth is that there are probably more Linux programs than he realized–a lot more. The best estimate I could find was tens of thousands. Linux, after all, inherited thousands of programs written for Unix, its software progenitor, and users are constantly adding to that library, modifying here, rewriting there, publicizing some and hoarding others.

In one market–the larger computers known as servers–Linux is already a threat to Microsoft, says Eric Raymond, a Linux evangelist. Linux runs on nearly a third of all servers, and according to Raymond, it will soon make similar inroads in the consumer market. His reasoning: as computer prices spiral downward, the price PC manufacturers pay to license Windows grows proportionately, cutting into their meager margins. PC makers will “start defecting en masse to Linux,” Raymond predicts, “because they can no longer make money partnered with Microsoft.”

Perhaps. But Linux still has a long way to go in the dumb-like-me consumer market. Windows’ main claim to fame is its relative ease of use–at least compared to MS-DOS. Or raw Linux. Until the Linuxians create a system that’s as easy to use as Windows–or better still, the Mac–Microsoft has nothing to worry about. Well, almost nothing.

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