Jeremy Allison Column Archives

The Low Point — a View from the Valley — Column 8

Black is White

Microsoft has been on a charm offensive of late. "We care about interoperability" has been their public mantra, and they've been telling this story to anyone who will print it (and when you have as many marketing dollars to spend as Redmond does, that's a lot of ink). I ended up being pulled into this effort as part of my San Francisco LinuxWorld duties.

One of the few remaining parts of the completely sterile computer trade show that LinuxWorld has become that I still find fun is the "Golden Penguin Quiz Show". At this event two teams of participants; the "Geeks" and the "Nerds" battle it out to prove who knows the most computing, science fiction, science and Linux-related trivia. The only reason I still find it fun is that I have to run it, I'm not sure what the audience think (although I hope they're enjoying it as much as I am). For a simple and supposedly lighthearted show it takes a fiendish amount of preparation, from finding participants and judges, writing all the questions and then selecting (and sometimes making) a silly enough costume to front the show.

All this takes months. I'm not kidding, this is probably the most stressful event of my year. It's mainly getting together the questions that takes all the effort. After being criticized by Dan Frye, head of the Linux efforts at IBM the first time I ran it for not asking any humiliating questions about IBM I've realized I can just about get away with anything up there on stage. As the old cliché has it, the only bad publicity is NO publicity. So as long as I'm pronouncing names correctly and assigning blame appropriately, I can equate popular Corporations to fascist regimes, quote Lenin and other good Communists, publicly point out humiliating product and marketing disasters and, in the works of the Monty Python description of quiz shows, get away with the "ritual humiliation of the old and greedy".

Getting the participants this year was easy, it was handed to me on a plate as I got word that Microsoft wanted to participate. Microsoft wanted to compete as they were at the show to promote their efforts at "Interoperability". Of course the only fitting competition was a team of mainly Google Open Source engineers (easy to arrange as they're local in Mountain View and I know several of them). The costume this year also created itself in a way. Given two teams of Google versus Microsoft, the only appropriate attire was a half-black, half-white costume (with face make-up) to represent the epic battle between good and evil. I even got to copy the idea from an old third season original series "Star Trek"; "Let this be your last battlefield" as a tribute to the character "Loki", played by the late great Frank Gorshin as a half-black, half-white alien pursuing a half-white, half-black criminal (no heavy symbolism there, obviously).

Microsoft even joined in the fun by turning up as "Darth Vader" and a couple of "Star Wars" stormtroopers. In case you're wondering, the Google team won (I had some fun by telling the Microsoft guy's they'd probably win "the third time they entered"). It all gathered a lot of positive press for Microsoft of course, which is why they did it. "Look what good sports they are" everyone said, and of course they were, showing how much things have changed with Microsoft at a Linux show, talking about interoperability etc. etc. etc.

Except for out there after the show, in IT departments around the world, who have to live in cold reality. Where things haven't changed at all. Where Microsoft clients are still no more able to operate with non-Microsoft servers than before Microsoft made their big PR push. Where single sign-on is still a myth because of Microsoft's tying together of public and proprietary protocols so one won't work correctly without the other. Where Microsoft Office software still holds billions of documents to ransom from the people who created them, who are scared to change to anything else "in case it's not interoperable".

It's a symptom of the current cynical world, where Governments as well as Corporations have learned that if they just repeat a lie often enough and loudly enough, with a compliant and spineless media, with no oversight to their actions it can become the truth. No need for the "Records Department of the Ministry of Truth", you can just keep putting out press release after press release saying you're now "interoperable with Linux" and have "strong support for open standards" and violà you are. No need to actually do anything, just keep telling people you've done something and that's enough.

The week before the LinuxWorld San Francisco conference that Microsoft attended with such a flourish was the much quieter CIFS (Common Internet File System) conference, also in the Bay Area in Santa Clara. You remember CIFS don't you ? It's the file system that all Microsoft clients use to communicate with the Microsoft servers. The conference was started by Microsoft and was attended by all the server vendors who have to make their software actually interoperate with Microsoft clients. It's one of the largest events in the calendar for the Samba Team as we all get together with peer engineers from all CIFS vendor companies to make sure our software actually interoperates and works well together. Except for one major server vendor of course. The biggest one in fact. They didn't even bother to turn up, or send any engineers to work on interoperability. Can you guess who that was ? Maybe they were too busy getting ready for their presentations on "Interoperability" at LinuxWorld to actually do any work on interoperability.

In the insightful words of "Inigo Montoya" from "The Princess Bride":

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."