And the winner is Linux

Microsoft and Apple were to take part in an OS shoot-out against Linux.in Auckland last week But Apple withdrew a week before because its presenter had to go overseas and Microsoft pulled out at the last minute, apparently at the instruction of new managing director Ross Peat.

Considering the sums of money big IT companies spend on projecting a positive brand image you’d think they would be careful to avoid mishaps that undermine the marketing message. But carelessness can creep in.

Take Microsoft. On a large scale, there’s the flak it’s taking for Software Assurance, the change to its software licensing model. Software Assurance, which has prompted a complaint to the Commerce Commission in this country, and vocal opposition elsewhere in the world, is a subscription scheme.

Failure to subscribe will mean those wanting software upgrades in the future will have to pay the full cost rather than an upgrade fee. Many critics say they’ll end up paying more for Microsoft applications as a result, whereas Microsoft says its aim is to simplify its licensing. Simpler maybe, but some of those up in arms, including Auckland law firm Clendon Feeney, which took the Commerce Commission complaint, are considering moving to open source alternatives. (Speaking of which, Peru is apparently mandating such a move for state agencies, giving rise to revealing correspondence which you can read on The Register).

Given the shadow Software Assurance casts over its wares, you might imagine Microsoft would be keen to put them up for public comparison with some Linux equivalents. But it missed a golden opportunity last week. It wasn’t the only operating system vendor to do so. Microsoft and Apple were to take part in an OS shoot-out at Computerworld Expo in Auckland, pitting themselves against Linux. In the end, Linux had the field to itself, Apple withdrawing a week or so before the event because its presenter had to dash off overseas.

But Microsoft really shot itself in the foot, pulling out at the last minute, apparently at the instruction of new managing director Ross Peat. As well as the OS shoot-out, it was to have put up Office XP against OpenOffice, but that didn’t go ahead either.

Why? Was it worried the comparison wouldn’t reflect well on its offerings, which have the apparent advantage of being state-of-the-art products from the world’s biggest software development factory? Surely the XP pairing could have nothing to fear from software that has come into being through the co-operative — if semi-chaotic — efforts of non-commercial developers?

Yet that’s the conclusion one’s almost forced to draw from Peat’s bland no-show explanation: taking part in the shoot-outs wouldn’t have been “appropriate”, he told organiser Doug Casement. The inappropriateness of it didn’t occur to Microsoft until some weeks after having agreed to take part.

Apart from giving itself a hole in the foot, Microsoft effectively ensured OpenOffice had a smooth ride into the market. The suite is a free version of Sun's StarOffice, and since the start of the month has been available for download from OpenOffice.org, an open-source developer community sponsored by Sun. Like Office XP, it features a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation application and, according to its promoters, it will handle Microsoft Word and Excel files. Look out Microsoft.

Fortunately for Microsoft, perhaps — if not the user community and the rest of the software industry — another couple of software companies have also been drawing the wrong kind of attention to themselves. They are Adobe, which earned the label the “Microsoft of the graphics world” from one designer (not intended as a compliment, I think), and Macromedia, the loser in a patent infringement suit brought by Adobe and settled this month. The case enforces Adobe’s patent on tabbed palettes, an interface feature it developed and which Macromedia apparently borrowed in Flash 5, Dreamweaver 4, Freehand 10 and Fireworks 5. None of Macromedia’s new MX products is apparently affected. Will Adobe now go after other potential patent infringers? Look out Corel.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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