Is Microsoft the Great Satan? (Old Version)

There is an updated version of this article.

Many people think of Microsoft as the monster menace of the software industry. There is even a 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 is bad for software users: making software proprietary and thus denying users their rightful freedom.

But Microsoft is not alone in this; almost all software 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 dividing users and taking away their freedom. When criticizing Microsoft, we must not exonerate the other companies that also make proprietary software. At the FSF, we don't run any proprietary software—not from Microsoft or anyone else.

In the “Halloween documents,” released at the end of 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 are nothing new: Microsoft, and many other software companies, have been doing them for years now. In the past, probably, their motivation was to attack each other; now, it seems, we are among the intended targets. But that change in motivation has no practical consequence, because secret conventions and software patents obstruct everyone, regardless of the “intended target.”

Secrecy and patents do threaten free software. They have obstructed us greatly in the past, and we must expect they will do so even more in the future. But this is no different from what was going to happen even if Microsoft had never noticed us. The only real significance of the “Halloween documents” is that Microsoft seems to think that the GNU/Linux system has the potential for great success.

Thank you, Microsoft, and please get out of the way.