One Way to Break the Microsoft Monopoly

17Jan07

The KDE project has announced that KDE 4 applications will be fully operational on Mac OS X, followed eventually by Windows compatibility. Trolltech (maker of the QT libraries that KDE is based on) has added support for Macs and Windows machines, and KDE intends to take advantage of the new functionality to make the KDE applications fully cross-platform.

This is going to be very interesting to watch. The theory of network externalities suggests that the market for computer operating systems is a natural monopoly. The dynamic goes like this: the more users a particular operating system has, the more developers will write applications for that OS, which in turn makes that OS even more valuable to more users. The cycle continues until we have one operating system (Windows) with a 95% market share. If it hadn’t been Microsoft, it would have been someone else. Our challenge is to make sure that we do get to someone else, and that the someone else is FLOSS.

This entire dynamic is based on higher costs for deploying software on more than one OS. In that situation, software developers focus on the monopoly OS where they will make the most profit. What is interesting here is the possibility, due to the expanded capacity of the QT libraries, that KDE will be able to support Windows and OS X without incurring unacceptable additional costs.

The KDE project has an impressive and growing body of software applications and all of its applications run natively on linux and other *nixes. The KDE applications are also available for free, and have all of the other advantages of open source software. To the extent that Windows users grow fond of KDE applications, their need for Windows will be reduced and changing to Linux will become more feasible. This was exactly the threat that caused Microsoft to strike down Java as an application platform.

But it should be harder for them to do that to KDE. Without pretending to be a programmer, I do know that KDE/QT applications compile from C++ and need no additional interpreter to run, as Java applications do. I believe it will take more extreme measures on Microsoft’s part to sabotage the functioning of KDE applications than it took with Java. I have no doubt that Ballmer will come up with something but there is, at least, cause to hope that it will be something so egregious as to bring about a new antitrust suit.

And what about Apple? In the short run, the availability of KDE applications should help pull users from both Windows and Linux. But in the long run, the same logic will apple to Apple as to Microsoft. If you can get the applications you want on any of the platforms, why not go with the free, open source platform?

This is a good thing.

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