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Mono-culture and the .NETwork effect

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Consider a future where Microsoft has succeeded in migrating most Windows development to the .NET framework. With the considerable power that Microsoft wields over corporate desktop computing, the success of .NET is easy to foresee.

Now, imagine for a moment that Mono, following in .NET's footsteps, is also hugely successful. Further, imagine that, in its success, Mono displaces a large portion of traditional Linux software development over the next few years.

I believe that if the above scenario becomes reality it could lead to a disaster for Linux. In such a future, Microsoft would have tremendous leverage over Linux, Linux programmers, and businesses using Linux.

Microsoft can, at a carefully selected time, change key interfaces, sue for patent infringement, and release otherwise standard .NET components that break or obsolete pieces of Mono. They can also use the powers of the DMCA to prevent Mono developers from gaining access to obfuscated components of .NET technology. While hobbyists and Linux-centric companies will be able to withstand such inconveniences (with the possible exception of patent suits, of course), general businesses and organizations will not be able to resist such pressure.

Of course, Microsoft is well aware of how this scenario could unfold and has thought of many more exploitable details than a casual observer such as myself.

Mono, if successful, is a gift from heaven to Microsoft that, when the timing is right, can be used to set Linux deployment back years, or worse, depending on the devastating psychological and economic effects such a maneuver would have on Linux developers and businesses.

For Microsoft, their best strategy to do real damage to Linux is to make it easy for Mono to succeed while carefully laying their traps. They can quietly go about the business of patenting all of the key functions of .NET. Anyone who has followed the trend of software patents must realize that Microsoft could have dozens of patent claims covering .NET before Mono rises to prominence.

Then, Microsoft need only wait. The optimum time to shut down Mono will be after much Linux development has committed to it. By then, Mono technology will have infected many projects. Perhaps worse, it will be easier for Mono programmers to simply switch platforms and become Windows developers rather than learn alternative methods and tools of Linux development. Programmers have to eat and software development houses must pay the bills. In such a scenario, there is not a year to burn while everyone ramps up their skills with new tools and practices.

Meanwhile, businesses will be forced to abandon any Linux packages that are .NET-encumbered. Since a .NET version of each Mono-based program would already exist, it would take only a few such packages to convince a business to migrate off of Linux. The headaches of replacing such packages under Linux need only exceed the alternative headache of simply switching to Windows.

A company with their own custom Mono-based software would have fewer options. Microsoft, however, would likely provide an easy solution; simply move the Mono software to .NET and it will all be legal.

I am not the first person to have thought about this. Several Slashdot users have posted cautionary messages about developers placing their trust in the good intentions of Microsoft. [1, 2, 3, 4, and 5].

Dave Winer also seems to wonder about Microsoft's oddly open behavior:
The first clue should be that Microsoft is not protecting the source of .NET, in fact they're publishing it, with some constraints, but if you want to see how they do it, they say there will be no mysteries and no poison pills. So they're making it not impossible to clone. Why are they being so generous? (A little sarcasm, sorry.)
Even Miguel de Icaza1, the founder of the Mono project, acknowledges the compatibility hazards:
If Microsoft decided to make our life really hard in terms of compatibility, it would also hurt its own customers. If it changes the APIs, that affects its customers as well. So I think the APIs will remain fairly stable, and I hope that Microsoft won't go into proprietary protocols or protocols that would make it really hard for us to implement Mono. There's is always the possibility it will do so. Microsoft has some strange patterns in terms of how it competes. I really hope it will "behave like a good citizen," as Steve Ballmer said recently it would.
What I've described here is probably a worst-case scenario; in all likelihood Mono will not be so successful as to cause a large problem for Linux if and when Microsoft decides to kill it. However, even in a favorable sequence of events, Microsoft will still hold the power to cause a large amount of open source effort and code to be lost.

1. Miguel rebuts one of my points here.
mail this link | score:8775 | -Ray, October 13, 2003 (Updated: October 14, 2003)
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