Jim Allchin, Microsoft’s “Windows operating-system chief,” has been trying to convince the U.S. government that open source software (or at least the General Public License) is a threat to the U.S. and to intellectual activity; one of his arguments is that open source software is a threat to innovation. In its recent court battles, Microsoft also used innovation as justification for its business practices (which have since been determined to be illegal).
However, after examining the evidence, I’ve determined that Microsoft is not a substantial innovator, so its claims that it should avoid punishment “because it’s an innovator” are without merit. Its products are popular, but as determined in a court of law, that’s at least in part due to illegal business practices that restrain customers from obtaining or using competing products (which, without customers, then collapse) [*]. That doesn’t make Microsoft innovative, at least not in technology. There’s nothing wrong with a company that isn’t innovative! But there must be excellent evidence of innovation to even consider eliminating punishment for illegal activity or to consider new legal constraints on competitors.
Here, I’ll provide evidence that (1) none of the key software innovations have been produced by Microsoft, (2) all of the important Microsoft products are essentially copies of previous products, and (3) Microsoft’s underlying technologies are not innovative either. Microsoft is simply not an innovator, and must not be allowed to use “innovation” as a defense, or to convince others that open source software / free software (OSS/FS) is a threat to innovation when there’s no evidence to support the claim.
But first, we must define “innovation.” An “innovation” is not simply combining multiple functions into a single product - that’s “integration” and usually doesn’t require any innovation (just hard work). In particular, integrating functions into a single product to prevent customers from using a competitor’s product (a documented Microsoft practice) is “predation”, not “innovation.” An “innovation” is not a product, either, although a product may embody or contain innovations. Re-implementing a product so that it does the same thing on a different computer isn’t an innovation, either. An innovation is a new idea. And in this context, what’s meant is a new idea in software technology.
Let’s try to identify the “most important (key) technical innovations in software”, and see which ones Microsoft created. Years ago I became interested in what were the most important software innovations, so I created a list based on lists of various computer-related events. I used many sources so I wouldn’t miss anything important, for example, I used IEEE Computer’s historical information, the Virtual Museum of Computing, and Hobbes’ Internet Timeline. I’m not aware of any formal consensus list of important software innovations, so this is the most definitive list I’m aware of. Clearly, Microsoft can’t have innovated anything before its formation in 1975, but I’ve tried to create a complete list of key software technology innovations -- that way, it’s much easier to see what a key software technology innovation really is (compared to simply another me-too product). It also clearly shows that innovations some people think of as Microsoft’s actually predate the company.
|Open source software / free software (OSS/FS) has a better track record at producing key software innovations than Microsoft, who has never made one.|
Some modest amount of innovation is necessary to build products, but this level of innovation occurs in every programmer developing any product (regardless of whether they’re building proprietary or OSS/FS products). Conversely, several of these key innovations (such as TCP/IP and the world wide web) were originally implemented and distributed as open source software / free software (OSS/FS). If you want real innovation, OSS/FS has a better track record at producing important software innovations than Microsoft.
I selected what I perceive to be Microsoft’s key products, and I found that none of them are fundamentally innovative either; they’re simply re-implementations of existing products:
|All major Microsoft products are essentially re-implementations of previous products; none are fundamentally innovative.|
There are certainly other products by Microsoft; I can’t possibly list “all” products in this short space. But surely, if Microsoft had created a major new innovation in product types, it would be one of these top products. Instead, we find that the major Microsoft products are essentially re-implementations of previous products. There’s nothing wrong with trying to re-implement the same kind of product slightly better or cheaper than someone else; users are glad to see this kind of competition! However, that’s not innovation.
|Microsoft’s key underlying technologies aren’t innovative either.|
So let’s look at a few technologies from Microsoft, and see if there are some innovations that are significantly better than those of other companies or of OSS/FS:
Some may note that Microsoft does hold some patents. Unfortunately, software patents don’t demonstrate innovation, just that the submitter has enough money to submit many patent applications. The database of existing work in software used by patent examiners is inadequate, software patent examiners are generally paid less than those in the field (reducing the number of qualified examiners), patent examiners have very little time to review each patent application, and patent examiners have incentives to simply accept applications (with minor changes) as opposed to denying invalid requests. As a result, software patents on pre-existing or obvious ideas are often granted. Indeed, a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down the PTO's internal rules on "obviousness", because many patents have been granted on ideas that are obvious to practitioners; as a result, many such patents are probably unenforceable. Even if you accepted the unlikely notion that software patents represented innovation, if you want to compare the number of ideas with OSS/FS developers, it’s clear that many OSS/FS leaders actively discourage applying for patents; this suggests that counting patents from the OSS/FS community would still not be a fair comparison of the number of ideas. Many countries do not allow software patents, and although the U.S. now does, there are a number of organizations who oppose them. For more information on the problems with software patents, see organizations such as the League for Programming Freedom.
I’ve shown that (1) none of the key software innovations have been produced by Microsoft, (2) Microsoft’s key products are essentially copies of previous products, and that (3) Microsoft’s key technologies aren’t innovative either. Microsoft has always “chased the tail lights” of real innovators. Perhaps Microsoft has been creative in very small ways, but there’s absolutely no evidence that they’re more or even as creative as any other group of developers, OSS/FS or proprietary. Others have come to the same conclusion; see websites such as the Microsoft “Hall of Innovation”, which carefully analyzed various Microsoft products and has yet (as of August 2005) to find clear evidence of even one innovation.
There’s nothing wrong with a company that isn’t innovative. After all, the purpose of Microsoft (or any other company) is to make money for its shareholders, not to create innovations for their own sake. But claiming that you’re innovative, when you aren’t, is disingenuous. Justifying illegal actions in the name of innovation, when that innovation has never occurred, is doubly disingenuous. And, if this is a key support for their argument that the government shouldn’t encourage OSS/FS, analysis quickly causes those arguments to evaporate too.
Only Microsoft seems to think that OSS/FS is a fundamental problem for the computing industry. Several key innovations came from the OSS/FS community, including essentially the entire Internet, so clearly OSS/FS encourages innovation, not the other way around. In a wider view, OSS/FS is being widely embraced, and there are many quantitative benefits. For example, many major computing companies (such as IBM, HP, and Sun) are adopting, distributing, and supporting OSS/FS projects. Even other companies that sell proprietary software, such as Oracle, are finding ways to work with OSS/FS projects.
In this context, Allchin’s statement “I worry if the government encourages open source [software], and I don’t think we’ve done enough education of policymakers to understand the threat,” has a chilling undertone.
It instead appears that Microsoft simply doesn’t want to change its business model to reflect the changing computing environment and its customer’s desires. That’s too bad; nothing prevents Microsoft from changing its approach. Yet monopolies before it have made the same mistake. I’m not anti-Microsoft, and I’m not against proprietary software. Indeed, I’m happy to praise Microsoft or any other company when it does good things. However, it disturbs me when any organization makes such baldly untrue claims. It’s wrong for Microsoft to excuse its illegal conduct, wrong to claim it does not need to obey the law by claiming significant innovation, and it is triply wrong once you realize that it has not even innovated the way it claims it has.