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Desktop Linux Market Share Will Rise, Thanks to Microsoft

Bill Gates said he would get China addicted to Windows and then "collect sometime in the next decade." Now they are indeed coming to collect, but thanks to Linux their plan could backfire, badly.

Recently news has been circulating around the Internet of a Linux clone of Windows. Well, that’s simply not true.

There is indeed a Linux based operating system called Ylmf, however it’s anything but a clone of Windows.

Created by the Rain Forest Wind Guangdong Computer Technology Company, it’s essentially a derived work of Ubuntu, themed to look like Windows XP.

To help provide everything Windows users might need, it also comes with Wine and lots of extra goodies. Under the hood though, it’s all Linux.

Ylmf Desktop, in English
Ylmf Desktop, in English

Cause and effect

Software piracy is rife in China. Indeed, a pirated version of Windows 7 was created three months before the official release and readily available at local computer markets for around US$5. Microsoft knows that piracy is a big problem for them because it represents lost revenue. This is why the company has invested so much money into their activation measures.

One year ago, Steve Balmer gave a presentation to investors in which he outlined threats to the company based on current market share. He put unlicensed Windows as the second largest slice of the pie, saying:

“Number two market share goes to Windows pirated, or unlicensed. That’s a competitor that’s tough to beat, they’ve got a good price and a heck of a product, but we’re working on it.”

Guess who came after that? Yep, Linux, which Balmer sees as a bigger threat than Apple.

Bill Gates is well aware of the situation in China. During a speech at the University of Washington in 1998 he addressed this very topic, saying:

“About 3 million computers get sold every year in China, but people don’t pay for the software. Someday they will, though. As long as they are going to steal it, we want them to steal ours. They’ll get sort of addicted, and then we’ll somehow figure out how to collect sometime in the next decade.”

Yes, Microsoft was happy to let China pirate Windows in order to get them “addicted” to it. A decade later just as Bill Gates said, they are in the business of collecting from the very junkies they created. One has to wonder what China would be using, had Microsoft not allowed this to happen. Exactly ten years since Bill Gates’ speech, Microsoft stepped up anti-piracy campaigns in China.

Microsoft is searching for ways to make people pay for Windows (and rightly so) but the harder they make it and the more they lock the system down, the more attractive other options become.

In August last year, four Chinese people were fined and sentenced to 3.5 years jail for distributing a pirated version of Windows XP, called Tomato Garden.

Microsoft said:

“The case served as a warning to anyone thinking about knocking off Windows 7, a new-generation Windows operating system.”

Microsoft allowed the Chinese to pirate previous versions of Windows, but now with Windows 7 out it’s finally time to collect. This court case did serve as a timely reminder of the consequences of piracy, but will it have the desired effect that Microsoft is seeking?

Just four months after the sentencing of those men, a version of Linux aimed squarely at Chinese users of Windows has arisen. It’s ironic then that as Microsoft now tries to collect on those it let pirate Windows in the past, it finds itself inadvertently pushing users over to Linux.

The question for Microsoft is whether it’s better to continue to have users on pirated copies of Windows, or on a completely different operating system altogether. By forcing users to cough up for legitimate licenses, they are doing themselves a disservice as many will switch to Linux instead. With a population as massive as China’s this has the potential to backfire on Microsoft really, really badly. On the other hand, they can’t afford not to make money.

Imitation

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but why would anyone want to make Linux look like Windows anyway? Short answer, familiarity. It’s not that the Windows interface is better than others out there, nor that it’s revolutionary, or that there aren’t any alternatives. It’s simply because it’s more widely recognized. Period.

Yes, anyone can download and use Ubuntu but like everything in the Linux world there are lots of niches to fill. In China, some 90% of computers run Windows, so if you want to get users to switch to something else, you need to make the migration as attractive and smooth as possible.

Ylmf focuses on looking like Windows so that users aren’t as daunted. They are also more likely to try it, because it feels familiar. The system also includes Wine so that users can (hopefully) seamlessly install their Windows software. If they can achieve their goal, why would users pay for Windows when they can get Linux for free?

Just how well distros like Ylmf will fare remains to be seen. Nevertheless, Linux has obviously reached a point where it’s more widely acceptable. The free aspect of the software appeals greatly to those averse to spending money on software. There are few restrictions on it (other than compliance with software licenses) which leaves users free to meddle to their heart’s content. Once users start using Free software, they are very likely to stay. So, the important part is getting them to use it in the first place. For users who have only ever used and seen Windows, a version like Ylmf could be just what the doctor ordered.

The road to freedom

While Microsoft is pushing hard against piracy to collect monies owed, they could well be doing so at a dangerous time. Linux is becoming more attractive every day and as we have seen with Ylmf it’s not too hard to achieve something which appeals to Microsoft’s market.

People might not be willing to try something which is entirely foreign, but if it provides some level of familiarity they will be more open to it. Certainly Linux should continue down its own path, doing its own thing, but at the same time it should be aware of what’s going on around it. A little bit of familiarity could go a long way to providing that step to freedom in the long run.

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