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by Mike Zazaian September 10, 2006 - 4:01pm, 4 Comments

Windows vs. Linux - Who Will be King?

Will open source software such as Linux ever oust market giants like Microsoft from the top? Two Harvard professors have set out to determine that very question.

While it’s agreed upon that neither Linux nor Microsoft will fall out of favor in the operating system market, it’s up for debate who will come out on top. Harvard Business School professors Pankaj Ghemawat and Ramon Casadesus-Masanell have done a great deal of research on the matter, focusing especially on the organization and management of open source software(OSS).

Ghemawat and Casadesus-Masanell began with the premise that OSS is powerful because anyone can contribute, resulting in quicker release cycles and more mature software. Microsoft, on the other hand, is seen as deriving power from its sheer number of users, which prompt third-party companies to develop more software for Microsoft platforms. Windows operatings systems can be more usable because of the more diverse amount of commercial software available to be run on it. Casadesus-Masanel explains the premise on which their testing of this idea was based:

Our methodology is formal economic modelling. What this means is that we construct a stylized mathematical model of the relationship…When we began the project, we thought that network effects and demand-side learning would result in Linux forcing Windows out. After all, we reasoned, if Windows is sold at a positive price and Linux is free, there will always be Linux users, and if the strength of Linux’s network effect is large, the value of Linux to prospective users should eventually become larger than that of Windows. Well… we were wrong.

The results of the experiment are a bit surprising. If neglecting differences in cost, findings from the experiment showed that as long as Microsoft has a larger user base than Linux from the point at which their economic model begins, Linux is never able to dethrone Microsoft. Furthermore, the experiment demonstrates that even as Linux may be a superior product to Windows in terms of design and value, this alone should not be enough to oust Windows from it’s place atop the market.

A seperate scenario in which cost differences were factored in showed that the greater the margin between the prices of Windows and Linux distributions, the greater the market share that OSS would claim from Microsoft, and the less likely Windows would be able to survive in the long run. This sounds like a clear-cut win for Linux, but in fact the model showed, much to the chagrin of the researchers, that if Microsoft strategically lowered its prices it would be able to hinder the progress of the open source community to the point at which Linux would never become a threat to Windows:

What we had missed is that Microsoft’s initial advantage (larger installed base) together with its pricing power allow the company to price strategically to control Linux’s market share going forward. By lowering the price of Windows, the demand for Linux shrinks to the point where Linux is not a threat to the survival of Windows.

While this doesn’t mean that Windows will necessarily crush out Linux as the OS wars continue, it certainly seems to imply that Microsoft is in a perfect position to do so. Microsoft is obviously aware of the threat that OSS poses, and will continue to battle the rise of Linux distributions, a move that also combats the welfare of PC owners.

A final conclusion of the study demonstrates that if Microsoft continues the following questionable practices, it should hold strong as the king of the hill.

  1. Make it as hard as possible for Windows applications to work on Linux.
  2. Infuse fear, uncertainty, and doubt into the Linux user community.
  3. Support as much as possible the independent software vendor community so that the quantity and quality of complements is substantially above that of Linux.
  4. Price discriminate. Give Windows and applications away to schools and universities so that users build their file libraries on Microsoft, not Linux.

It’s a battle which Microsoft may win at the expense of PC users, the future, and everything. Clearly Microsoft realizes that it has, in some regard, an inferior product, and will do everything it can to keep that product as the most widely-used operating system in the world. But it has to be considered that even with all of this power that Microsoft seems to have over Linux, that which is good should ultimately prevail over that which is bad, insidious and evil. I’m not saying that Microsoft in and of itself is evil, but to try to keep profits up at the expense of everyone else in the world is.

A final scenario was researched in which the question was raised, “Can Microsoft ever completely erase Linux?” The model showed that the only possible scenario in which this could happen would be if Windows was free to the public, just as Linux. And even were that the case, I’m sure that the dedication, hard work, and progressive-thinking of the pillars of the Linux community would perservere and rise again, like a phoenix from the ashes.

[via Working Knowledge]