The shot heard around the world

It has often been said that the only thing certain in life is death and taxes. In Microsoft land, taxation is now referred to as Software Assurance, in which you pay an annual fee up front in expectation of services regardless of their quality or whether you want them.

It has been frequently said that the only thing certain in life is death and taxes. In the land of Microsoft, taxation is now referred to as Software Assurance, in which you pay an annual fee up front in expectation of services regardless of their quality or whether you want them.

It mirrors the relationship most citizens have with their government, and most citizens are dissatisfied with the quality of service they get from their government. This dissatisfaction is because the government gets paid no matter what, so it has no incentive to innovate or provide superior service.

But at least the government has to listen to its constituents, and it is possible to turn elected officials out of office. In contrast, Microsoft has historically shown little interest in listening to customers and until recently, customers could not turn Microsoft Office out of, well, their office.

This raises the question: Does Microsoft's Software Assurance programme essentially impose a tax without any representation? And if it does, are people going to be angry enough to stage a modern rendition of the Boston Tea Party where boxes of Microsoft Office are dumped in the harbour?

Frankly, it's too early to say, but there are some folks at Sun who are betting something like this will happen. They argue StarOffice is sufficiently compatible with Microsoft Office and is a rich enough environment to support the needs of the majority of users, the exception perhaps being financial analysts dependent on spreadsheet applications written in Microsoft Office. But even then, Sun plans to more tightly integrate StarOffice with a number of scripting languages and will roll out a full client strategy to counter Microsoft Office's dominance on the dominant Windows platform.

Sun says there are already five million downloads of StarOffice. If Sun pulls this off, it would be the industry equivalent of the 13 colonies sending the world's most powerful army packing, thereby setting the stage for two centuries of occasional glory for -- but ultimately the decline of -- the British empire. If something similar happened to Microsoft, the equivalent of two centuries in computer time would be about two decades.

The problem with this scenario is who will create a stable government in the wake of the revolution? The Linux community is already fractured, with Federalists trying to make capital pitted against the utopian-minded rank- and-file. In the same way that Hamilton and Jefferson struggled for control of the US after the revolution, so too will Linux fragment. Even worse, Linus Torvald is no George Washington and can't hold it together long enough to create a stable social economic environment. Even with Washington, the US government did not resolve these issues until the end of a bloody civil war. And the issue that will create the equivalent of that war in the Linux community will be the battle over royalties and who owns what intellectual property.

There's no question that something profound is taking place in the marketplace. What is unclear is whether this is going to be just the latest in a long list of insurrections against the established, efficient economic order or the founding of a new republic based on certain inalienable rights.

Vizard is editor in chief of US IDG publication InfoWorld. Send letters for publication in Computerworld NZ to Computerworld Letters.

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