Dictionary.com defines protectionism as such:
1. Economics. the theory, practice, or system of fostering or developing domestic industries by protecting them from foreign competition through duties or quotas imposed on importations.
This is the phrase that came to my mind a few days ago when I read the article about Microsoft’s Linux Support Subscriptions. Microsoft and Novel have teamed up and are brandishing the Microsoft patents at the technology community in an effort to stem the incoming tide of the open source community and fear of possible outgoing tide of revenue. Novel has struck a deal with Microsoft to have Microsoft bless the SuSE Linux Enterprise Server (essentially saying that SLES has no unlicensed Microsoft technology in it…any Microsoft-ish technology that is there is now licensed). Microsoft is also hinting (not so subtly) that they might sue anyone who may have unlicensed Microsoft IP (or something that might look like Microsoft IP) in their open source projects. This then causes a ripple effect to commercial providers who may include open source components in their products (like Apple’s OS X) and the business who use these open source and commercial products. (sniff, sniff…do I smell SCO in the air?)
As a business person, I’m a strong proponent of IP protection and patent law. But eventually in a complicated soup like the technology industry, where stuff has to work together and interoperate, there needs to be some consideration of the best interest of the customer. Throw the open source ingredient into the pot and you get technology vendors who don’t believe or understand the open source movement looking for ways to protect their interests (i.e., revenue streams).
This is nothing new in the wider economic sense. All you have to do is do a Google news search for protectionism. You get examples ranging from the US government’s protectionism of the US Ports to the EU’s protectionism of sportswear imported into the union. The underlying goal of each of these examples is to protect one group form changes that are occurring in the larger world. There are lots of social and economic reasons that can be given for why the protectionism is needed, but the real reason is anchored in the fact that it’s hard for people to change. And in today’s change accelerating world, it’s only getting more and more difficult.
The technology field has been going through it’s own core changes for the past five to six years. The over spending of the bubble years led to the cost cutting and maturity of the use of IT within business. Large IT “deals” started to decline; programmers who were lured into the cycle of self-destructive levels of work and productivity for the false hopes of quick wealth started to turn their energies to the altruistic endeavor of open source development; businesses started to see real value and security in the open source projects.
A technology company is no different than a person…change is hard. Many companies fail because they either don’t change when they need to or early enough, or they don’t change fast enough. Then look at the biggest, they can delay the change through the use of their legal armies. Figure out a way to use the legal system against those that are causing the change. Boost your own declining revenue streams by instilling fear in your customers (all customers love vendors for doing that…ever hear of a license audit?). The move by Microsoft and Novell is nothing more than technology protectionism.
So Microsoft is scared. Windows Vista hasn’t been going as smoothly as they need it to. All of the cool features it was supposed to have have almost all disappeared due to technical difficulties of implementing them in the hodgepodge of legacy code. Apple’s computer and OS popularity has grown. Deja vu with the Firefox browser’s popularity continuing to grow. Another 800 pound gorilla by the name of Google has been invading it’s part of the jungle for a while now. How is the company going to keep or grown it’s 28% profit margin in order to keep another 800 pound gorilla (the street) happy? Release the IP lawyers.
An so business start to protect their own self interests and pay into the protectionism scheme. Of course these business need to save face themselves, so they change the name of the scheme 180 degrees from protectionism to interoperability. Wouldn’t you do the same if you had a well funded ($34B) army of lawyers marching toward you?
I just don’t buy this spin that this deal is about making Linux and Windows more interoperable. If that was the case, there are open standards that Linux has supported from it’s inception that Microsoft could start to fully support (interoperability is about more than just two companies products). This is all about Microsoft protectionism. I think the pressure that Microsoft is feeling is greater than what the general press is talking about (personal opinion). Rather than trying to inovate their way out problems they face with the changing technology marketplace, they are taking the protectionism route. Beat up on the marketplace by threatening to sue unless they buy a Linux License from Microsoft.
I’m calling shenanigans on this use of the De Tocqueville model.