Linux, the pirate's friend, says Gartner

Or has it changed its mind about that?

We in the press find recalls and corrections a big help. We get a hell of a lot of junk that we assume is dull and therefore throw away without reading, often without even noticing, but the shrill words RECALL!!" or "CORRECTION!!!!" signify to us that there is something somebody has decided they'd rather not have said, or that they'd rather we didn't read. We dive straight into the trash, and although frequently the original remains very dull indeed and is immediately retrashed, sometimes it isn't.

We're not sure about this week's effort on behalf of Gartner, because we didn't get it in the first place and it may be that, bless 'em, they've drawn our attention to something they never actually distributed.* Not directly, anyway. The unreleased/dereleased release was headed: "Linux has a fight on its hands in emerging PC markets says Gartner," and we can track it back as far as this report here, which you'll note Gartner wants a cool $795 for the full text of.

But that entry in the table of contents down the bottom looks like being one you might want to handle very carefully if you were preparing the accompanying press release: "Linux on New PCs: A Way to Avoid Microsoft License Fees". Hell, get a word wrong when you try to explain that one and you could utterly destroy your company's credibility by sounding like some kind of Redmond stooge.

We await the revised press release, should it ever happen. However a little more digging nets us what looks like a parent to the report. Last year Asia Computer Weekly covered a Gartner report which claimed Linux's success in Thailand was based on its being a cover for software piracy. Over 90 per cent of Thailand's cheap ICT scheme computers, claimed Gartner analyst Martin Gilliland, were likely to have pirate copies of Windows installed on them within 30 days of delivery.

And happily you don't need to pay $795 for this one - you'll find a short write-up in this pile here. So it sounds like the more recent report is thumping the same tub, but for Asia more generally. You'll note from the 2003 write-up that Gartner claimed Asian governments planning ICT-like schemes had asked for its assistance, which could put Gartner in a peculiar position. To what extent, one wonders, should it lobby the governments to adjust their schemes in order to limit piracy of Windows? Or on the other hand, from the governments' perspective should piracy be viewed as a handy but deniable mechanism for pressuring Microsoft pricing downwards? It's a tough life in the consultants, it's not all conference keynotes and canapes...

There would however seem to us to be a logical flaw in the argument that Gartner is propounding, and it's rather like the Naked PC logical flaw Microsoft has been banging away at for years. If machines without Windows on them are sold then, argues Microsoft, many of them will have pirate copies of Windows installed on them. Microsoft's conclusion here is that the sale of Naked PCs encourages piracy, and that therefore their sale should be strongly (sometimes quite brutally) discouraged. And you certainly could draw this conclusion, although it seems to us you could just as readily draw the conclusion that customers perceive Windows as being too expensive, and/or that they feel the licence for the old machine they've thrown out (which Microsoft's Ts & Cs say is not transferrable) really ought to be OK for the new one they've bought. Which would mean they think they're morally right and that Microsoft's Ts & Cs are unreasonable. Overpriced and unreasonable? Does this resonate with you?

Now, move this forward to an environment where Linux has some support, at least from the government, as a desktop standard. If you take the view (as Gartner appears to) that the customers really don't want Linux, then there's no great difference between shipping a Naked PC and shipping one with Linux preinstalled. There's no cost to the system builder for shipping Linux, more likely a subsidy, so shipping nothing really does seem a bit silly. Sticking with that Gartner view you can therefore see the effect as being that, by stimulating uptake of PCs, the governments are magnifying Microsoft's piracy problem. But by that argument it's not Linux that's encouraging piracy, it's the government. And yes, we accept that Gartner doesn't seem to say Linux encourages piracy, but that it's a cover for piracy. This too is incorrect, though, because the argument is only valid if you believe the Redmond line that Naked PCs encourage piracy.

The claim that a large percentage of ICT scheme sales wind up with pirate Windows on them does however seem eminently sustainable. Why is this? We can skip the affordability issue here because the users by definition already have functional software on their machines. They will however likely be much more familiar with Windows and its functionality, Microsoft's dominance having effectively made it the perceived global standard, and making anything else a pretty tough sell to the average user. And there's also the games issue, which The Reg has always suspected will be the last one to go away. So if you're trying to create an alternative, you have to go further than simply shipping Linux machines to consumers - it needs a lot of handholding, development and stimulation. Sure, just chuck them out for long enough and the market may decide, but you're not going to get immediate results, unless the result you want is Microsoft still in the driving seat, but with slightly better prices.

Which is possibly what some Asian governments want - their decision. We would however suggest to Gartner that its reports might make a more positive contribution to the debate were they to flag this need for greater support for users if a Linux alternative is to hit the spot, and to desist from silly screamers about piracy. They get you publicity, sure, but we get the impression maybe Gartner didn't want the publicity after all. ®

* Wouldn't you know it? What we surmise is rev two of the release arrived nanoseconds after we posted this story. In this, Gartner says: "More PC vendors are using Linux as an insurance policy against Microsoft license fees in many emerging markets. However, about two-fifths of these PCs will be modified to run a pirated version of the Microsoft's Windows operating system (OS) a few days before they are used. Most of these systems are targeted towards users that aim on save on OS costs, which can account for up to 15 percent of a PC's total cost."

Interestingly, it adds: "Until recently, Microsoft preferred users to employ a pirated version of Windows until the company was able to combat piracy in emerging markets effectively." And suggests that Microsoft's recent introduction of Starter Editions of XP is a sign that it intends to switch from this, which is effectively using piracy to its own advantage in order to maintain its dominant position, to trying to win the revenue for itself. Given that that as far as we can see there's no earthly reason why Starter Edition should work, the main effort for this sales drive is surely going to go into lobbying governments to crack down hard on piracy.

Related stories

MS plays volume licensing upgrade card against Naked PCs
MS disappears claim that Windows is legal requirement
Preinstalled Windows: AARGH! I can't get it off!
Microsoft issues bounty for OS-less PC buyers
Linux on desktop not cost-effective for most, says Gartner

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