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Business Day | TECHNOLOGY

TECHNOLOGY; An Alternative To Microsoft Gains Support In High Places


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Governments around the world, afraid that Microsoft has become too powerful in critical software markets, have begun working to ensure an alternative.

More than two dozen countries in Asia, Europe and Latin America, including China and Germany, are now encouraging their government agencies to use ''open source'' software -- developed by communities of programmers who distribute the code without charge and donate their labor to cooperatively debug, modify and otherwise improve the software.

The best known of these projects is Linux, a computer operating system that Microsoft now regards as the leading competitive threat to its lucrative Windows franchise in the market for software that runs computer servers. The foremost corporate champion of Linux is I.B.M., which is working with many governments on Linux projects.

Against this opposition, Microsoft has found itself in the uncommon position of campaigning for the even-handed competition of ''a level playing field.'' And I.B.M., once the feared monopolist of the era of mainframe computers, is casting itself as a force of liberation from Microsoft, the monopolist of today.


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Microsoft worries that some governments may all but require the use of Linux for their powerful servers, which provide data to large networks of computer users. For the most part, the battle does not involve the kind of software that runs on the typical computer user's desk.

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To curb such moves, Microsoft is backing an industry group called the Initiative for Software Choice. The group lists 20 members -- besides the chip maker Intel, a close ally, most of them small foreign companies or organizations. (Illegally stifling choice, of course, was precisely what the federal courts in the long-running antitrust case ruled that Microsoft did in the market for personal computer software.)

The motivations and actions by foreign governments vary somewhat, but mostly they seem to be trying to ensure competition. That was the stance taken by a delegation of Chinese officials involved in developing their software industry, who visited the United States last month.

In an interview, Jiang Guangzhi, director of a software development center in Shanghai, discussed the progress made in China on various Linux projects and emphasized that the government did not want one company ''to manipulate or dominate the Chinese market.'' With its entry into the World Trade Organization, China is facing increased pressure to crack down on software piracy, adding to the appeal of free software like Linux, Mr. Jiang said.

His delegation had attended the LinuxWorld conference in San Francisco, and met with I.B.M. executives and its Linux experts at the company's headquarters in Armonk, N.Y.

Yet Mr. Jiang also spoke glowingly of Microsoft's involvement in China. The company set up a research laboratory in Beijing and recently made a commitment to invest $700 million in China over the next three years in education, training and research, and in investments in local companies.

''We appreciate Microsoft's contributions,'' Mr. Jiang said.

To Chinese Communist officials, it seems, Linux is a useful tool of pragmatic capitalism to pump-prime market competition to China's advantage.

The support of open source software by governments around the world is rising. There are currently 66 government proposals, statements and studies promoting open source software in 25 countries, according to the Initiative for Software Choice. The policy statements and legislative proposals mainly encourage the use of open source software in government procurement, and nearly all of them have cropped up in the last 18 months.


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''It's growing, unfortunately, from our perspective,'' said Mike Wendy, a spokesman for the software initiative, which was founded in May.

The impetus for the international activity was in Europe. A technology advisory group to the European Commission issued a report two years ago that termed open source software ''a great opportunity'' for the region that could perhaps ''change the rules in the information technology industry,'' wresting the lead in software from the United States and reducing Europe's reliance on imports.

As open source software, especially Linux, has spread, countries in other regions have also come to regard it as both a model of software development and perhaps an engine of economic growth. The government proposals and projects are efforts to position their nations to exploit a promising trend in technology.

Source code is software rendered in a programming language that human programmers can read and understand, before it is compiled down to the digital 1's and 0's that the machine processes. Software companies, like Microsoft, typically guard their source code as a trade secret, and certainly do not allow outsiders to modify or redistribute it.

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In the open source model, the source code is freely published for all to see. Then, interested programmers -- often all over the world, communicating over the Internet -- work on a project to fix, modify and add improvements. These self-selected communities work out their own governing arrangements to determine when changes in the code are approved or rejected.

The leading open source projects are Apache, the software most used for distributing Web pages to desktop computers, and the Linux operating system. The kernel, or basic engine, of Linux was initially developed by Linus Torvalds, a Finnish programmer who now works in the United States -- though the operating system itself is a result of work from many contributors, including Richard M. Stallman, who leads a free software project called GNU.

Just how far the open source model can go is uncertain. The projects rely on voluntary contributions from programmers who work at universities, government laboratories and companies. Money is made in the open source environment by supplying technical support, services and writing applications that run on top of the open source software.

Linux has certainly gone a long way already. Though there are versions of Linux that run on desktop PC's, the real success of Linux has been as an operating system on larger data-serving machines, which power computer networks in corporations and governments and the Internet.

The big market for computer server software is also crucial to Microsoft's future. Although the company controls a huge portion of the personal computer operating systems market, to keep growing it must push increasingly into the lucrative market for software that runs corporate and government data centers. It is there that Microsoft encounters what its senior executives have cited as the two most significant competitive threats: I.B.M. and free software, notably Linux.


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That combination, in Microsoft's view, could be particularly powerful, especially if open source software emerges as the most politically acceptable technological path.

In Germany, for example, the lower house of Parliament adopted a resolution last November declaring that the government should use open source software ''whenever doing so will reduce costs.'' The resolution also cited as advantages ''stability'' and ''security.'' Microsoft's Windows operating system is often criticized for crashing too often and for being susceptible to computer viruses and security breaches.

Then in June, the German government and I.B.M. announced a ''far-reaching cooperation agreement'' to use open source software in national and municipal government agencies. ''The fact that Linux provides a true alternative to the Windows operating system,'' said Otto Schily, the German interior minister, ''increases our independence and improves our position as a big customer for software.''

The German case, I.B.M. says, is part of an emerging pattern. ''There's not a large government in the world we're not talking to,'' said Steven Solazzo, general manager of I.B.M.'s Linux business.

The Initiative for Software Choice, the Microsoft-supported group, said it has nothing against open source software as such, but that a declared policy favoring one development model is a bias -- a competition based on prejudice instead of the merits of the products.

''All we're looking for is a level playing field competitively,'' said Peter Houston, a senior strategy executive in Microsoft's Windows group.

As open source software moves out of its incubator of a comparatively small community of devoted software developers and into the commercial mainstream, customers -- in governments and corporations -- will increasingly see its limitations, Mr. Houston said. Windows, he said, has a wide range of tools and technical abilities that Linux does not have in a ''comprehensive, integrated, easy-to-use'' package.

By contrast, Mr. Houston said, I.B.M. is mainly trying to convert its weakness in the operating-system market to its advantage by making money supplying the software -- the ingredients that an operating system like Linux lacks -- and collecting services revenue for putting it all together.

''I.B.M. is just trying to move the value up the chain from the operating system,'' Mr. Houston said.


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In the end, market competition should determine whether Microsoft or Linux gains the upper hand.

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