There once was a time when Microsoft was evil, open source was the underdog and flamewars between the two camps were frequent and fierce. Those were the days! Today the industry has traded those early wars for equally vociferous fights between Android and iOS adherents, or HTML5 vs. native mobile application development. However, given how the early battles have faded, it’s likely that today’s nasty flame wars will be tomorrow’s distant memories.
Don’t believe me? Let’s see if you still care about these epic brawls of the 2000s.
Windows vs. Linux
As religious wars go, few can top this blood feud. Coming at the height of Microsoft’s market dominance, Linux was the open-source upstart that promised to topple the evil empire, spreading peace, love and open source to all.
Microsoft was not amused.
Though the Redmond initially tried to discredit Linux as “un-American,” labeling it “a cancer” in 2001. When that didn’t work, in 2003 Microsoft launched its infamous “Get the Facts” campaign, which was long on propaganda and short on facts, then doubled down on the campaign in 2005. When this didn’t work, either, Microsoft got its lawyers involved, dropping an unsubstantiated bombshell that Linux infringed 235 of its Windows patents. The open sourcerors fought back, alleging that Windows infringed on Linux’s intellectual property.
Throughout it all, CIOs bought both Windows and Linux servers en masse, while dumping expensive Unix servers. This ultimately seems to have cooled tempers, with Linux dominating in new markets like cloud computing even as Windows remains strong for more traditional enterprise workloads. A new pragmatism seems to govern server OS choice.
As for the Linux desktop, it never really caught on, despite its adherents’ fondest hopes. But this also hasn’t mattered, as mobile has displaced the desktop as the premier consumer computing platform. There, Linux (à la Android) is dominant, not Windows, leaving the two camps with little to fight about except royalties.
Internet Explorer vs. Netscape (Firefox)
Microsoft was at the center of this religious war, too, first beating market-leading Netscape into oblivion with illegal antitrust behavior. The Netscape browser, however, resurrected as Firefox, and this time Firefox seriously cut into Microsoft’s market share, eventually claiming more than 20% of the global desktop browser market, according to Net Applications.
Along the way, developers took sides, proclaiming their allegiance in the form of website badges suggesting which browser to use. As for Microsoft, it relaunched its Get the Facts campaign, this time challenging the open-source browsers in the area of security, privacy and more.
Over time, this war subsided, despite once being waged in the judicial system and the comments sections of myriads of articles. The desktop became less important, initially establishing Apple as the dominant force in browsers with Google claiming significant share in both desktop and now mobile browser markets.
Microsoft Office vs. OpenOffice
Are you noticing a theme here? Yet again, Microsoft is front and center, this time being with its cash-cow Office productivity suite business under siege by the open-source community. Well, sort of. For much of the 2000s, Sun sponsored the vast majority of OpenOffice.org (now OpenOffice) development, and then helped to drive the emergence of the Open Document Format (ODF). While OpenOffice never seriously threatened Microsoft, it did prompt a marketing response.
But OpenOffice’s more important legacy, and the one that Microsoft fought more vigorously, was ODF. Across the planet, Microsoft lobbied hard to kill any attempt to institute an open format that would obviate its proprietary Office file formats. It largely succeeded, with adoption for ODF largely stymied.
Even so, a larger threat to both ODF and Microsoft has been the emergence of mobile as a primary computing platform. While Microsoft continues to print profits from sales of Office, as the world moves beyond the desktop the need for a full-fledged office productivity suite is fading, whatever the file format.
GPL vs. Apache
Of course, Microsoft isn’t the only entity to generate angst and ire in the 2000s. Within the open source camp, the 2000s saw bitter rivalries, including KDE vs. GNOME on the desktop (which neither side won) and free software vs. open source everywhere.
The most visible proponent of free software and the GNU General Public License (GPL) that powered it is Richard Stallman. On the more permissive open source side stood Eric Raymond. For a time Stallman and the free source crowd had the upper hand, but over the past few years Apache-style licensing has won out, given the freedom and flexibility it affords developers. This trend accelerated as open source went mainstream, and developers became more concerned with getting work done than scoring political points.
Open vs. Closed
The backdrop for each of these industry flame-fests is the question of open vs. closed technology. Originally confined to a question of licensing, “open” has come to comprise much more, including APIs and data. New breed technology-heavy companies like Facebook espouse openness, arguing that it encourages developer adoption and improves their services. Meanwhile, the closed camp…doesn’t really exist.
Oh, sure, there are some who argue that open source is not more secure, or that open data is dangerous, or whatever. But whereas “open vs. closed” was really the fundamental question of the 2000s, it has largely been settled. Today, “openness” is like motherhood and apple pie: everyone loves it, or claims to do so. Today Microsoft openly uses and often advocates open source software. Oracle owns the leading open source relational database, MySQL, and commits significant development resources to advancing it.
Which is, perhaps, why today’s big debates are less dominated by quasi-religious overtones. Progress? Yes. But a bit boring?
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