Why Not Open Source?

Ethical concerns about Microsoft in the Academy

Computer languages are called languages because they are just that. They enable the educated members of our society … to build and communicate ideas that benefit the other members of our society… . Legally restricting access to knowledge of the infrastructure that our society increasingly relies on … results in less freedom and slower innovation. —Bob Young

The epigram, taken from Eric S. Raymond’s hacker classic, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, is a statement about open source software development. Not surprisingly, the statement was made by one of the organized leaders of the open source community, Bob Young, former CEO of Red Hat Linux. Raymond’s book looks at the historical development of the open source model and presents an economic metaphor to illustrate the difference between open and closed source software. The former represents “a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches … out of which a coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge only by a succession of miracles,” while the latter, closed source software is “built like cathedrals, carefully crafted by individual wizards or small bands of mages working in splendid isolation, with no beta to be released before its time” (Raymond 30, 29). Raymond uses the Unix-based Linux as an example of the bazaar, and Microsoft Windows as the cathedral.

While Raymond’s primary concern may seem economic, the implications of open-source and closed-source software enter into the philosophical and ideological, especially with the on-going anti-trust case against Microsoft. While the question of Microsoft’s crime and punishment is still being debated over two years after Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson delivered his verdict against Microsoft — a verdict that has been upheld even through an appeal — the software giant’s cathedral seems as grand and as sturdy as ever.

What keeps this behemoth standing arrogantly in defiance of what seems to be incontrovertible evidence of their malfeasance? Well, the simple answer to that question is that we all do. By continuing to use Microsoft’s products, users condone and even sanction Microsoft’s monopoly maintenance by both passive acceptance and aggressive coercion. This essay asks the question: why is Microsoft still a monopoly and what are the implications of this fact to institutions of higher education? What should we as academics, administrators, and students be doing about this situation? Should we even care?

In a 1998 MacWorld article, David Pogue reports an attempt by Yale’s director of information technologies to phase out any operating system that is not Windows. Without consulting any administration, students, or faculty about his decision, he sent a letter to entering first-year students; in this now infamous document he writes:

You are strongly encouraged to select a Windows PC, which was the choice of over 75 percent of first-year student computer owners in 1996-97. Owing to uncertainties about availability of software for Apple operating systems, the University cannot guarantee support for Macintoshes beyond June 2000. (Pogue 186)

According to Pogue, the culprit, Daniel Updegrove, issued this letter despite the 75 percent population of Mac users at Yale in 1995. Another critic, Donna Ladd writing in MacHome suggests that Updegrove’s motivation to move to a Windows platform rests in a competitive grant from Intel, offering 25 universities $90 million worth of free equipment (52). Updegrove insists that the letter and the grant have nothing to do with each other, even though he himself wrote both documents at the same time (Ladd 52).

Pogue offers another explanation: “Updegrove realized that in an all-Windows world he could be the most important man on campus” (185). Since Windows machines cost far more to support than Macs, Yale would have to increase its funding to Updegrove’s department just to keep the troublesome Windows machines working, thus guaranteeing not only Updegrove’s job, but his increasing importance and control of the campus.

The incredulity of staff, faculty, and students took the form of letters to the Yale Daily News and official departmental announcements stating contrary positions. Many would not even consider Updegrove’s directive that “all- and predominantly-Mac departments that lack a compelling reason to remain with Macintosh should develop a Windows migration plan before June 2000” (Ladd 53; Pogue 185). Pogue asks these very practical questions: How could Yale’s computer support guarantee the availability of any software past 2000? Would the over 14,000 software titles for the Macintosh and other platforms disappear overnight?

This phenomenon seems de rigueur in many American universities, though according to Dennis Sellers from MacCentral, Macs are waning, but not endangered in institutions of higher education. Pogue mentions that Mac phase-outs are also underway at Stanford and Brown. According to Jeffrey Young of The Chronicle of Higher Education, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill initiated a plan that requires all incoming students to purchase a Windows PC beginning the fall of 2000. This decision, states Marion Moore, the chief information officer at Chapel Hill, is aimed at cutting down on support costs for the university. In response to much opposition, Moore blithely avers that “the diversity issue is a total red herring, … I believe that what I am hearing is misinformed people who don’t understand technology. True diversity is not the device. True diversity is the software that you run on it” (quoted in Young).

Yet, despite Moore’s official statement, compelling students to purchase one type of platform and run one type of operating system severely limits the freedoms of those users — in all cases the “device” dictates the software. If diversity is in the software, as Moore suggests, officials at Chapel Hill are limiting that software choice by requiring students to purchase and use only one type of computer platform.

In a response posted by MacNN, Bob May, the Dean of the College and Graduate School of Business at the University of Texas, tries to justify his college’s policy to require incoming students to purchase Windows PCs. Again, May cites the issue of support as a key point in choosing Dell laptops running Windows NT. He states that Dell offered the best support for their institutional requirements and they concluded that they “needed that support.”

Part of both Moore’s and May’s concern about support might stem from the unreliability and unintuitiveness of the Windows platform. According to a study by the Gartner Group, support departments would have to double funding and staffing to maintain increasingly more Windows machines (Pogue 185). In comparison, Michael J. Johnson shows that the Macintosh operating system costs up to 25% less to support than Windows (Johnson 2). Johnson, the Deputy Superintendent for Instruction and Technology for the Conroe Independent School District in Texas, offers the lack of technical support as the number one problem facing educational computing (Johnson 2). While Johnson’s school district includes in-school support specialists, many of those cannot handle problems when they creep up in Windows computers, so the school must rely on outside support which is costly and inconvenient. The computer users, in this case administrators, teachers, and students, become disadvantaged when using computers that are less-reliable, more difficult to implement and maintain, and more expensive to support.

Even at my own institution, tenured professors were denied their choice of computer platform if they decided they wanted something different than a Windows machine. Why, in an institution of higher learning, are computer support departments becoming Gates’ Brown Shirts? Creative individuals are losing an important tool that they have chosen — weather the MacOS, Linux, BeOS, or others — and are being compelled to use an buggy operating system that costs more to purchase and maintain.

As a graduate student, I called the university’s computer support telephone line just to get the dial-in number for connection. Having received the number, I asked if any other modem settings were necessary. He mentioned something about a start menu, and I said I was a Mac user. He said: “good luck: we don’t support Macs.” I’m glad I didn’t mention that fact before I asked for the dial-in number. Would our same institutions tell us what publishers we had to buy our books from? How to teach our classes? How much freedom should we expect?

Outside support of computing resources also offers another danger, but one that’s similar to the internal computing tyrant. In the article “Microsoft.Gov.OK?,” LinuxUser recently reported on the United Kingdom’s new government Gateway project, a web gateway that offers a complete range of governmental services over the World Wide Web. While one of the goals of this project was to bring a new access to the government for the citizens of the UK, proprietary software in the design and implementation of the project restricts access of the Gateway to anyone not using both Windows and Internet Explorer. Trying to connect with anything else brings up an unsupported browser page that lists several options, but only one gives complete access to the site: Win and IE. Dissenters ask if the British government, an institution that prides itself on its democratic ideals, can truly force the use of a certain type of computing platform in order to access the government. LinuxUser quotes Bob Young, the former-CEO of Red Hat Linux:

Here’s Britain, the foundation of democracy and freedom, building its governmental infrastructure on proprietary binary-only technology from a known predatory monopolist. In a free market democracy our government infrastructures should be permanently open to competitive bid. You should never be locked into a single-source supplier. That’s just a fundamental mistake.

Another example of Microsoft’s attempts to pigeonhole users into their software comes in a new feature of WindowsXP. Walter S. Mossberg, in “New Windows XP Feature Can Re-Edit Others’ Sites,” reports on a new feature of Internet Explorer called “Smart Tags,” an appropriate moniker if you’re using Microsoft’s definition of “smart.” These tags can turn any word on any web site into a link to any sites that Microsoft favors. Mossberg interprets this feature as an intrusive electronic editor that favors Microsoft sites: it can “re-edit anybody’s site, without the owner’s knowledge or permission, in a way that tempts users to leave and go to a Microsoft-chosen site — whether or not that site offers better information.” According to Mossberg, Microsoft will give other companies the ability to insert smart tags into web sites, and he envisions a spam war fought on the pages of unsuspecting web designers: “Once the hate groups, the spammers, and the junk marketers on the Web get their hands on these Smart Tags, they’ll be plastering their links on everything.”

Smart Tags represent the explicit intrusion of Microsoft on how we think, write, and read, yet their business practices from the start show how they seek to control every aspect of the personal computer on everyone’s desk. John Heilemann’s fifty-page report on the antitrust trial illustrates Microsoft’s illegal business practices and their attempts to brazenly manipulate the public and the government into thinking that Microsoft really does know best by acquiring “virtually complete control over what is arguably the most important tool in the American workplace” (265).

As an educator, I feel an ethical obligation not to condone the findings of the United States government: Microsoft is a monopoly, though it is becoming less-likely that the US government will do anything about this fact. Indeed, like the separation of church and state, the cathedral that Microsoft has built seems impenetrable to the ostensibly impotent wishes of the state and its citizens. Higher than the law of the land, the Church of Microsoft seems to have a metaphysical sanction that grants it the ability to do whatever it pleases. State institutions even turn a blind eye to this fact and continue supporting a business that has proven untrustworthy in their business practices with an equally untrustworthy product. (Just how many Outlook or IE viruses does it take to convince people that Windows is an unsafe product?) With practices of fear, uncertainty, and doubt, Microsoft has kept technology companies either marginalized, like Netscape and Sun, in fear for their lives, like OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers), or completely run them out of business through dubious negotiation strategies.

This paper is not about upholding the Macintosh operating system over Windows, but it is about access and choice, especially in education. In the February 2002 issue of Linux Magazine, the current CEO of Red Hat Matthew Szulik argues that schools should adopt more open-source software to free them from the shackles of the predatory monopolist. With budgetary constrains making the purchase and upkeep of computers more difficult, many schools and universities find themselves unable to provide their students with adequate technological training because of older computers, lack of technical support, and most of all, a lack of appropriate funds. When dealing with proprietary software companies, schools must get their upgrades and fixes from those companies, often at an exorbitant cost.

Szulik sums up the situation: “by extending their lock on the educational system, the proprietary software vendors have restricted choice, institutionalized inefficiency, and imposed artificially high prices (even after discounts)” (10). Our institutional money is going to support a predatory monopoly, and by using this monopolist’s products in the classroom, we tell our students that Microsoft’s activities are quite all right with us. Do we really want to send that message?

As a possible way out of this increasingly bad situation, we must begin to first understand that Microsoft is not the only option for academic computing needs: choice abounds, but it is increasingly hard to see through Microsoft’s monopolistic fortifications. It seems clear that further use of open-source software in education bypasses many of the proprietary software vendors and their other compulsory charges by offering community support and the practically free distribution of software.

Open source software is free from the burden of ownership. Open source software belongs to the community of users, remaining free from the confining restraints of capitalism, sort of. “Free” here is not used in the same sense as “free car,” but more with that of “free speech.” The GNU Project’s Free Software Foundation equates programming code with that of speech, suggesting that all users should have access to the words that comprise the whole. Users may change the code to fit their needs, and they may distribute that code however they see fit. The foundation of open source software is accessibility to the code. Open source keeps software accessible to the community and allows that community to improve and augment software to make it better, refusing finality based on the monetary interests of one person or company.

Therefore, the use of open source software in an educational environment has two excellent benefits over licensed software:

  1. the price tag associated with open source software is usually small or non-existent, and
  2. support for the software comes from a community of users, not a single company where the balance is the bottom line.

Open source keeps the code public and allows no one entity to control it, keeping the price tag very low.

Have we ensconced ourselves too far into the cathedral? Is it practical to give up using Microsoft products, cold turkey? If not, perhaps we need a Martin Luther to nail our grievances on Microsoft’s venerable doors. Yet, most educators seem disinclined to seek alternatives. Like a belief that has been uttered so long and so forcibly it has become a mythical litany of faith that provides the foundation of knowledge and belief — a belief that should be accepted and unquestioned.

This practice, it seems to me, is contrary to education’s mission to teach the skills necessary for critical examination of the world and its beliefs. If we as educators continue to support a morally questionable corporation, what does that say about us and what we teach? Many of my colleagues would prefer to take the easy way out of this situation: remain faithful to Microsoft. Most offer arguments of convenience: our students use Word, and we need to be able to read their documents. I cannot be bothered to try to translate any type document they send to me. Microsoft gives us a computing standard, so we can concentrate on what’s important: teaching and research.

Indeed, these are powerful arguments. Isn’t technology supposed to help with efficiency and convenience, not impinge upon our professional efficacy? With more demands on our time, educators needn’t be burdened with the additional responsibilities of being computer support specialists. Yet, I must say, if we choose to employ technology in our classrooms, isn’t the onus on us to be prepared to face whatever contingencies may arise? Yes, this might mean more work for us in the beginning, but learning how to use the technology that we increasingly rely on in our pedagogy may be more necessary than ever. Despite what Microsoft might want us to believe: even if all computers were standardized with M$’s products, complications would arise. Are the problems inherent with using technology, or do we feel it’s because of platform diversity?

Finally, do the objections above mitigate our ethical responsibility in this matter? The simple fact is: by ignoring the situation, Microsoft gains a stronger hold on our microprocessing technologies and on the way we teach and learn. Are inconveniences more important than ethics? Do we allow Microsoft to maintain a stranglehold on the further development of computer technologies in order to facilitate a common platform between ourselves and our students? Can we with good conscience condone the business practices of a confirmed predator?

So, what is the responsibility of academia in this situation? Do we continue to provide Microsoft with the means of our own repression, or do we do our homework and realize that the cathedral only stands because of our devotion? Perhaps we can find what we need through other means, like the recycling of old hardware by using freely available operating systems and software. It seems to me that if the government is not willing to punish Microsoft for its crime against the state, maybe it’s time we left the cathedral and moved into the bazaar.


Originally presented at CCCC, March 2002. While many of the links might be out-of-date, the argument is still valid, even if Apple is, perhaps, the new Microsoft.


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