Is Microsoft the Great Satan?

This article was given a major rewrite in 2009. The old version is also available.

Many people think of Microsoft as the monster menace of the software industry. There is even a specific campaign to boycott Microsoft. This feeling has intensified since Microsoft expressed active hostility towards free software.

In the free software movement, our perspective is different. We see that Microsoft is doing something that mistreats software users: making software proprietary and thus denying users their rightful freedom. But Microsoft is not alone in this; many other companies do the same thing to the users. If other companies manage to dominate fewer users than Microsoft, that is not for lack of trying.

This is not meant to excuse Microsoft. Rather, it is meant as a reminder that Microsoft is the natural development of a software industry based on keeping users divided and subjugating them. When criticizing Microsoft, we should not focus so narrowly on Microsoft that we let other proprietary software developers off the hook.

When we reject Microsoft's proprietary software, that is not a boycott. The word “boycott” means rejection, as a protest, of products that are otherwise acceptable. Rejecting a product because it hurts you is not a boycott, just ordinary rationality. To maintain your freedom, you need to reject the software that takes away freedom, regardless of who developed it or who distributes it.

There is no need to reject Microsoft non-software products, or services that you can use without proprietary software. (When you use a web service, whether Microsoft's or not, watch out for nonfree JavaScript programs that it may try to slip into your browser.) When Microsoft releases free programs, which it occasionally does, they are acceptable in theory. Alas, most of them depend fundamentally on Microsoft proprietary software, which we do need to reject, and that makes them useless for anyone that chooses to live in freedom.

In the “Halloween documents,” leaked in October 1998, Microsoft executives stated an intention to use various methods to obstruct the development of free software: specifically, designing secret protocols and file formats, and patenting algorithms and software features.

These obstructionist policies were not new: Microsoft, and many other software companies, had been doing them for years. Secrecy and patents have obstructed us greatly, and they may be more damaging in the future. For the most part, the companies' main motivation in doing these things is to attack each other; now, it seems, we are specifically targeted. Microsoft is using its patents directly to attack the free software community, and our community is fighting back.

But Microsoft's patents are not the only patents that threaten us (and software developers and users generally)—consider the harm that the MP3 patents have done. Thus, defending against specific attacks is necessary but not sufficient. The only full solution is to eliminate software patents.

Other Microsoft practices specifically harmful to the adoption of free software are the ones designed to build up social inertia that obstructs migration to GNU/Linux. For instance, when Microsoft “donates” copies of Windows to schools, it converts these schools into tools for implanting a dependence on Windows. There are indications that Microsoft systematically plans these activities as a campaign against the adoption of GNU/Linux.

Each Windows “upgrade” augments Microsoft's power over the users; Microsoft plans it that way. And each one is a step forward in malicious features, which include Digital Restrictions Management and back doors. So the FSF runs campaigns to warn users against “upgrading” to Windows Vista and Windows 7. We aim to reduce the amount of inertia they will create.

We don't hate Microsoft, and we don't consider it the Great Satan. But we do recognize it as the company that has separated more users from their freedom than any other, and a powerful avowed enemy of computer users' freedom. We act accordingly.