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Column: Deja-vu All Over Again

DEC veteran Greg Scott draws parallels from the OpenVMS-Unix days to the current Windows-Linux wars.

By Greg Scott

A friend of mine who now works at Microsoft said Linux would only become viable if everyone involved decides they never want to make money. My friend from Microsoft is wrong, but his comment made me pause.

I remember a gathering of the IEEE in Minneapolis, about 10 years ago in the pre-Widows NT days. People in that crowd had more letters and degrees behind their names than I can remember, and I definitely felt out of place that day. My job, as a representative of Digital Equipment Corporation, was to sit on a panel full of Unix people from various end user companies and vendors and explain to this crowd why DEC OpenVMS really was every bit as open as anyone else’s flavor of Unix.

It was a tough job, but I thought I came up with a pretty good argument. I used the IEEE’s definition of "open," which said a product is "open" if it adheres to commonly accepted standards and argued that OpenVMS handily met that definition.

I was feeling pretty good about myself when an end-user representative on the panel skewered me. He said his company was migrating everything away from any vendor proprietary operating system to Unix and he had lots of experience to share. He said Unix had no security, it crashed all the time, it was unreliable, and he couldn’t trust it. I asked him, "Why do you buy computers if they don’t do what you want them to do?" He replied, "We’re moving this direction because we never want to be caught in anyone’s proprietary lock-in again. So we’ll put up with the hassles until somebody fixes them."

I left wondering what planet this guy came from.

Today, I have three Linux based firewalls at different customer sites and I use Linux internally as a DNS server. I also have a customer experimenting with the Star Office suite, which is available via free download from Sun Microsystems’ web site. Star Office has a basic word processor, spreadsheet, and other office software. It runs on both Linux and Windows platforms and it can exchange documents with Microsoft Word and Excel.

Why mess around with products like Linux and Star Office? After all, for firewalls, I need to learn a ton of information about the ipchains and iptables commands. For DNS, I need to immerse myself in the details around zone files.

And just to get Linux up and running, I need to learn the locations and syntax of what seems like millions of little text files all over the place.

I am trying to run a PPTP VPN through one of my firewalls. It’s not working properly right now and the problem is driving me crazy. I’ve sent desperation emails out to the community e-mail support lists, but nobody has a solution. So my VPN project is behind schedule and over budget, and I don’t even have a vendor I can yell at.

Star Office is another headache. Despite the propaganda touting Star Office, the free version is limited and not perfect. For example, in one of my customer’s interoperability tests, it messed up some date formatting in an Excel file.

Since it doesn’t interchange documents perfectly with Microsoft Office, I need to understand in detail what does and does not work. And user training is even more of a hassle because its interface is different than the Microsoft Office interface.

Meanwhile, with Windows, I have a GUI, point and click solution to just about all these issues. I can run the Windows 2000 DNS program and set up zones and hosts with a few clicks of a mouse button. I can buy commercial firewalls from lots of sources, even Microsoft, and most of them have VPN capabilities built right in. Since Microsoft Office is everywhere, it’s now easier than ever to exchange documents universally.

So why mess with something that is apparently so good?

The short answer is price and control. As we are all painfully aware, Microsoft Office now costs between $200 and $800 per desktop, depending on which flavor I buy. With Microsoft’s new product activation, I can’t even install the product I paid for without getting permission from Microsoft. By the way, this is not just happening with Microsoft Office XP. Buy a retail copy of Office 2000 and find the same activation procedure.

The same thing is happening with Windows. Windows 2000 Server costs roughly $700 retail and client licenses run roughly $40 each. Windows 2000 Professional costs more than $200. Each Terminal Server client license adds about $100 more. And I still need to get permission from Microsoft via Microsoft Product Activation to install it.

So after 10 years, I think I finally understand why that guy on the IEEE panel put up with the hassles he mentioned. I am putting up with similar hassles myself with Linux (although my Linux systems have been remarkably stable). History repeats itself.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.

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