Kearns' column: De-commoditise a better mousetrap

By now, you're probably well aware of the so-called "Halloween" memos. These are the two rather long documents purportedly prepared by Microsoft employees evaluating the risk factors of Linux vis-vis Microsoft's operating systems. Microsoft has acknowledged at least one of the memos as a valid internal document.

The documents, which can be read in their entirety at halloween.html, delve into the reasons for the success of Linux and other open source software (for a definition of open source, see html), while pointing out ways that Microsoft can combat the software's growing popularity.

What caught my eye were some of the suggestions for combating the success of Linux and open source software, especially the emphasis on using proprietary protocols and methods (referred to as "de-commoditising"). Nowhere within the documents was it even hinted at that Microsoft should build a better product.

No, the authors appear to have concluded that only by capturing a market through the use of bundled products running on proprietary protocols (Microsoft has created extensions of publicly available protocols such as HTTP) can the company beat back the open source threat. Commenting on the Halloween memos, Ed Muth, enterprise marketing group manager at Microsoft, says, "[Microsoft] would not be able to solve problems that other people could solve if we stayed with standard protocols."

Now the memos still would be remarkable if they were written by marketing weasels enamored with proprietary offerings, but these memos were written by engineers!

In my experience with software engineers - I've worked with and managed many over the past 30 years - they invariably believe that they can create a better way to accomplish a task or goal. As a group, they subscribe to the adage that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. Rarely, if ever, do they suggest taking the freely available specification for a mousetrap and making it proprietary.

Evidently things are different at Microsoft.

Read the Halloween memos for yourself. And hope that Joel Klein and the other Department of Justice antitrust attorneys are reading them as well.

Dave Kearns, a former network administrator, is a freelance writer and consultant in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at

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