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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 1998

The Microsoft Trial — Everyday Software Hangs in the Balance

By Stefan Mochnacki
Computers and the Internet have acquired a central role in our lives as faculty. For many, this development is unsettling. Much thought, discussion and even anguish will ensue before computers are fashioned into productive, rewarding and comfortable extensions of ourselves.

The essential question is whether computers and networks enhance and supplement our intellect, or whether they enslave us to the needs and dictates of bureaucracies and corporations and thereby alienate us from the fruits of our labour. Do we have any control over our relationship with computers and with the Internet? How can we ensure true progress in the use of computers will be what we want and not what is imposed by other interests?

In the latter half of 1998 two ongoing stories of historic proportions are transforming the immensely rich and powerful computer industry.

Firstly, Microsoft is on trial under the U.S. anti-trust laws. Even if Microsoft wins the evidence presented is having an impact on the computer industry rather like the impact of the Truth Commission on the people of South Africa.

Evidence of heavy-handed monopolistic behaviour is piling up day after day to such an extent that many major players in the industry want to ensure that no one player can ever again grab control of the heart of all computers, the operating system, and use that hegemony to try to take control and drive all competitors out of business.

The effective Microsoft monopoly has immediate consequences: just about all personal computers come with a "Microsoft Tax" built into their price. Microsoft has generally insisted computer manufacturers pay Microsoft for each computer they sell, on the assumption that all personal computers would be using a Microsoft operating system.

A Free Alternative
Secondly, a free alternative to Microsoft's operating systems has emerged at precisely the right moment. Free Unix-like operating systems such as Linux and FreeBSD, based on years of communitarian effort by programmers all over the world collaborating on efforts such as the "GNU" canon of essential tools, have now reached levels of sophistication, reliability and ease of use which are often better than those attained by Microsoft and other closed, corporate software producers.

In fact, thousands of people openly collaborating via the Internet on the writing and debugging of software for non-monetary rewards have been shown to be more effective at developing extremely complex systems than huge corporations working in secretive conditions. This achievement has spawned a sort of revolution among computer programmers, described in a flood of recent press reports and acknowledged by Microsoft engineers.

The idea that the world's richest man and his monopolistic company can be humbled by a community of programmers giving their product away free is a glorious story, but why is it important to academics?

Firstly, there is the immediate benefit of saving a lot of money: never again do we need to spend much for the basic software needed to run computers and networks. This is particularly important to students, for whom a computer is increasingly as essential as text books and other academic tools, and to educators in the Third World, for whom free open source software is a godsend. Mexico, for example, is adopting Linux for all its schools.

Secondly, the fact that source code comes with the software means students, staff and faculty can improve the system to suit their needs and in turn they can offer their improvements for peer review by the wider community of programmers.

Maintaining Diversity
Beyond these immediate, concrete benefits is the much broader issue of maintaining diversity. Monocultures are inherently bad because they stifle innovation, and we have been getting close to a monoculture in the world of computers.

On the other hand, a single set of open standards is needed to allow different types of computers and programs to "talk to" one another. Monopolistic companies have shown a capacity for at first embracing standards, but then subverting them by adding proprietary extensions. This tends to lock people into their world and exclude competitors. We need many competing software systems but only one set of universally accepted and open communication protocols.

Since computers are in effect our symbionts it is vitally important that the software they run be the best possible. We need to control our computers completely so that they are truly our agents. The products of the open source software movement are much more likely to provide this than proprietary software about whose inner workings we know nothing.

We need to defend the principle of diversity. It is most undesirable for any one company to acquire exclusive access to a university market, for example. Shrinking government support makes it tempting for university administrations to make deals with companies.

The California State University system created a private consortium involving itself, Microsoft, Fujitsu and Hughes, and transferred all computing and networking to it. Such arrangements could seriously threaten diversity. The argument that they save money is irrelevant when alternative software is free or inexpensive.

Using Open Source Software
What is to be done? Obviously we should use open source software whenever possible. However, the near-monopoly is not going to let its captive source of riches collapse without a fight. The war could get very dirty. We will need to hold firmly to our principles despite political and financial pressures to support the monopoly.

When commercial software is needed, we should buy from innovative companies that support the open source process. The choice of software used on campus influences our students after they graduate; computer companies have often subsidized campus sales hoping that graduates will later adopt the systems they learned to use during their studies. We have an extraordinary opportunity to guide our institutions and our students in a better direction. With strong Canadian support for Linux there is little need to stay with the old "standard," even on the office desktop.

Stefan Mochnacki is an associate professor in the Department of Astronomy, University of Toronto. He has used computers for 31 years, and currently manages his department's systems. He recently represented UTFA on the CAUT Council.

Further Reading -- The Cathedral and the Bazaar ( by Eric Raymond captures the essence of the open software movement. For the Love of Linux ( by Rachel Chalmers is a quirky, well-written commentary that contrasts Gates' license paradigm and open source software. Martin Luther, Meet Linus Torvalds ( by Thomas Scoville is a neat and amusing analogy in which Linux and free software challenge the Microsoft papacy. The Open-Source Revolution ( by Tim O'Reilly is an outstanding treatise.

Latest Developments -- News from Linux world can be followed at Articles on technology and the commercialization of education can be found at

CAUT Reports -- Proceedings of the conference on information technology can be found at

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