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Open Source – Open Season

August may be a month that Microsoft would rather forget and September is shaping-up for a set of different problems.

Microsoft remains uncomfortably trapped between a rock and a hard place as it seeks to deliver credible arguments that support both the investment it has made in ‘Trustworthy Computing’ and its position in respect to the rapid spread of care in the ‘Community Software’, which is becoming an increasingly persistent nuisance to the Seattle giant. This week, the company released the results of a study by Forrester Research commissioned by Microsoft that claims Windows and the .Net platform is substantially cheaper than J2EE/Linux when it comes to application development, deployment and maintenance

Since Japan's trade minister, Takeo Hirunama, raised security concerns over Microsoft's software at the ASEAN economics ministers meeting, there is talk of Asia going its own way with a rival Open Source Operating System to Windows. Referring to the recent attacks on Windows software, minister Hiranuma remarked it would be useful to "pursue a new kind, a different kind, of software code." The Japanese media have reported that the government would spend $86 million on an Open Source development project and forum set up by Japan's electronics manufacturers. In response, Microsoft has been at pains to stress its 'Government Security Program', launched in January, aims to address concerns by governments over the reliability and security of Microsoft's software by providing source access as well as technical advice on security


In the United States, The Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) has urged The Department of Homeland Security to reconsider its decision to use Microsoft software on its desktop and server systems. It cites "major security failures" created by the raft of vulnerabilities in the Windows Operating System and some security specialists are now advocating direct regulation, in the form of legislation that makes software companies liable for damage caused by security flaws in their products.



"The government has essentially relied on the voluntary efforts of industry both to make less buggy software and make systems more resilient," said Michael Vatis, former director of the National Infrastructure Protection Center at the FBI. "What we're seeing is that those voluntary efforts are insufficient, and the repercussions are vast."

For a moment though, we need to add back a little perspective into the debate. Sun Microsystems reportedly had twenty security alerts in August and these included Linux. This news rather passed us by because an overwhelming number of us prefer to use Microsoft’s products and Microsoft has become a victim of its own success in giving us what we asked for in off-the-shelf commodity software where consistency and ease of use was the primary attraction and security was an option.

There are two arguments at work here and it is almost impossible to separate them in overworked debate, which increasingly surrounds one’s choice of vendor or Operating System. Many of us might concede that a more ‘up-front’ and responsible Microsoft is has made significant steps where product security is concerned but the company’s broader efforts are being frustrated by society’s consistent failure to treat Internet security seriously and every time a new virus appears, another million or so unpatched Lemmings follow it over the nearest cliff.

The public rightly expects bulletproof software but it is not going to get it and needs to understand that the responsibility for fighting viruses, worms and hackers works both ways. Microsoft, like Ford, can spend a few billion extra on safety enhancements but in a comparative sense, the superhighway is no safer than the road outside my house if I choose to ignore the dangers. Over time, security will improve beyond all recognition and viruses may one day become a bad memory on any platform but I doubt very much it will be this side of 2010.

Finally, we have the cost of ownership argument, which says that if enough countries back an alternative Operating System, then computing costs will drop dramatically and everyone in China or India will live happily ever after. This may be true but we live in a global economy and need to recognise that the world is now dominated by a handful of large IT vendors, split across an Operating System fault-line and driven by a strong profit motive. Much like searching for the best price for a cross-channel trip, the market will, in the end, find its own equilibrium and whether you choose the tunnel or the ferry, Linux or Windows, the prices may look remarkably similar.

If you have a view of your own to share, then there is some good news. For four years, I have been chairing ‘The Great Linux Debate’ at the Linux Expo, which this year is at lunchtime on the 8th and 9th October at Olympia. For the first time, I have managed to persuade Microsoft to sit on the panel and argue its position against IBM, Hewlett, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett Packard, SuSe and others. Audience participation in the Jerry Springer style is encouraged and all are welcome.

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