Windows is Free

How Software Piracy Keeps Microsoft In Business

Worth the Price?

A recent column on Zdnet, by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, discussed the reasons why people won't change from a retail operating system to a free one. The implication is that Linux can't even give away their software.

That sounds pretty dire. Windows retails for around 200 US dollars, give or take depending on which version and where you buy. If the above statement by Mr Kingsley-Hughes was true, it means that Linux is so bad that people would gladly pay 200 dollars to avoid it. Do users really think Linux is that lame?

This article is not to defend Linux and counter the points that Mr Kingsley-Hughes made. Instead, the intention here is to simply use his article as a starting point to discuss in depth an issue which, so far as I've ever seen, is missing almost entirely from the debate over Windows versus Linux versus Mac.

Mr Kingsley-Hughes gives five essential points to explain what is so bad about Linux that it can't even succeed for free. On the whole, users aren't all that dissatisfied with Windows (I agree). Too many different versions of Linux (I sort of agree). People want certainty that hardware and software will work (I agree that's what people want, but I don't read the situation the same way that Mr Kingsley-Hughes does). As far as most people are concerned, the command line has gone the way of the dinosaur (It has for me, I love the GUIs. But, I'll get into this more below). Linux is still too geeky (Linux developers are still too geeky, sure. I totally agree that the people mainly developing and advocating Linux often don't see users' needs the way users see their needs.)

All the above reasons have some truth in them, but consider how the price comparison makes those points seem so much worse.

I Certainly Wouldn't Use Linux if it was as Bad as All That

Take the point that Linux relies too heavily on command line interface. I would probably pay 200 dollars for a nice graphical interface instead of having to run my computer at the command line all the time. But would I pay 200 dollars instead of using an interface that had nice graphics 99% of the time, and a command line for the occasional configuration? I think I'd rather spend that 200 bucks on something else, like maybe a new MP3 player. Throw in the fact that every few years I'll have to spend another hundred bucks or so on upgrades, and I'll handle the 1% of command line time. When you add in the fact that I might, just maybe, be making a one-for-one trade of blue error screens for command line issues, then I'm definitely leaning towards not spending 200 bucks.

As I type this article, I'm using OpenOffice, a free equivalent of Microsoft Office, on Ubuntu Linux, which has a very slick graphical user interface. Much like Windows Vista, I can spin around my desktop, make my windows go all wobbly when I move them. I love nice graphics and I'm no fan of obscure command line code. I certainly don't feel like I opted for a world of command line frustration.

Neither does my girlfriend, who makes a better example, since she's the type of user who all of us computer experts mean when we say "user." Her Compaq laptop, which had a pre-installed version of Windows XP, would die and go into the Blue Screen Of Death every time it tried to go into sleep mode. She asked if I could fix it. I said I could, but it would mean a change in interface. Of course, I was speaking about installing Linux. I didn't tell her about Linux or open source or free software, not because I was trying to be clever. I didn't tell her because she doesn't care. She wants to be able to log into Hotmail, transfer songs to her MP3 player, and watch Youtube. She doesn't care whether all this happens on Windows or whatever. Now she uses Ubuntu, and she never, ever, touches the command line. Of course, she comes to me if she can't do something, like change her desktop background. But she came to me for instructions on what to do with Windows too, so she's just as well off in Linux as she was in Windows.

At the same time, I'm not going to tell you that in the two years since I switched from Windows to Ubuntu that I have been able to do everything with a graphical user interface. I tend to be a lot more demanding of my computer than my girlfriend is, so I'm pushing the bleeding edge in order to make things work exactly as I want. I've had all sorts of set up issues, from my Wacom tablet to my SD card reader, to my dual monitors, and more. And personally, I don't really know much about the command line in Linux, or want to, so every time there was a problem I asked for help on my local Linux user group and they helped me get it all working in the end.

My point, however, is that while I have had my share of hassles, the vast majority of my time in front of my computer is just doing uncomplicated stuff that requires no command line. More than 99% of my time on Linux is spent in a nice graphical interface that is, in my opinion, better than Windows. Why would I pay 200 bucks, plus future fees, to save myself that 1% of hassle? Can Windows really claim to be 100% hassle-free anyway? Is it really worth 200 US dollars more?

Keep in mind that when you're saying that Windows is worth 200 dollars more than Linux, you're saying the differences are worth that much, not the whole thing. So if you can check your email on both, surf the web on both, listen to music on both, do spreadsheets on both, but only play 3D computer games on Windows, then what you're saying is that 3D computer games alone are worth 200 dollars to you. That may be fair enough in the case of playing games. I know gamers who would gladly pay 200 dollars more for the right gaming environment. But once I had someone tell me that they didn't want to switch to Linux because their printer model wasn't supported. Their printer was a little older and would have been easy to upgrade to a newer, Linux compatible model, for about 120 dollars. So, they were effectively trying to claim that they would rather pay 200 dollars in order to save themselves from paying 120 dollars. Which is obviously a claim that can only be made by a sane person if they're really bad at math, or their copy of Windows wasn't actually 200 dollars.

The Elephant in the Room

The fact is that there's a distortion in the idea that Linux can't be given away. There's something wrong in the idea the price difference between Windows and Linux is representative of the actual quality difference. There's an elephant in the room that no one is talking about.

Windows is free.

I'm not talking about the fact that Windows comes pre-installed in most computers, with its price hidden in the cost of the hardware. That contributes to the idea of Windows being free, but that's not the elephant in the room.

The elephant in the room that no one is talking about is cracked software.

People treat Windows as being free not because they didn't have to buy the copy that came with their computer. People think of Windows as free because when they need a copy, they can get it from a guy they know. Someone has a copy they can just burn to a CD for you. Or you can get it on the peer-to-peer networks.

How pervasive is cracked software? That's of course hard to quantify. No one is going to set down in any kind of public record that they use cracked software. Which is probably why it's notably absent from so much debate about operating systems. So any estimate is speculative, based on extrapolation from indirect data. Look, for instance, at the file sharing networks. You can log on almost any Bittorrent web site, at any time of the day, and there will be thousands of people participating in the sharing of Windows Vista. Or XP. Or whatever version you want. How many people are therefore using cracked copies of Windows? I have no idea, except that it's a lot.

With that in mind, let's take a little time to really explore the impact of free.

How Tempting Should Free Be?

Recently, when shopping for a portable music player, I narrowed down the possibilities to two main choices. One was the iPod Nano, the other was the iAudio player by Cowon. You may not have heard of that second brand. I certainly hadn't until I started shopping around for portable players.

The Cowon iAudio was cheaper, by about 20%. It actually played more file formats, but there was an issue of brand familiarity that made me hold back a bit. I gave it about a day to be sure I wanted to buy it. In the end, price trumped other considerations. The Cowon iAudio was good enough, and cheaper.

To arc closer towards towards my point, consider what the difference would be if the iAudio had been completely free.

I can tell you how it would have influenced my decision. I would have taken it home immediately, not even a moment's delay. Brands and design be damned, I would have taken the free option.

If one music player were free and another one expensive, the gap in quality would have to be huge to justify paying for the one with the price tag.

Is the difference between Linux and Windows really that big? Above I said that 99% of the time I use a nice graphical interface in Linux that I think is better than Windows. And in the 10 or more years I used Windows before switching, I know that Windows gave me enough of the famous Blue Screen Of Death to balance out the occasional need to go to the command line that Linux imposes on me. As far as I'm concerned, I think the two are on equal ground. When you compare all the good points of Windows, Linux, and Mac, and the bad points of blue error screens, command lines, and little bomb icons, the difference is close enough to keep the hardcore zealots arguing for hours.

But you and I aren't zealots, we just want to do stuff with our computers like look at YouTube and get email. So we won't nitpick about features. Instead, even though I think Linux is just as good as Windows, maybe even better, I'll propose for the sake of argument that Linux is 80% to 90% as good as Windows. As I said about the Cowon iAudio compared to the iPod, it's close enough for me to not want to spend the difference.

If we can agree on the concept of close enough, let's turn to other consumer products again. We expect that market forces will shape prices so that, so long as it's still profitable, a product that is slightly inferior in features or quality will be priced less than a product of more quality and features. This isn't always true, but it's an okay starting point. It's a believable idea that some companies can stay competitive by lowering their price to stay on the market alongside slightly better quality products. Consumers only have so much money to go around, and will often trade off quality for a good price.

In fact, some companies engage in a practice called "dumping" where they lower their price drastically so that they aren't even making a profit. They do that because if they can cheapen their product enough, consumers will overlook a lot of deficiencies and cast aside brand loyalties in favour of price. Then, when the company has a foothold in the marketplace, they can slowly try to increase their prices and quality, with the aim of eventually turning a profit.

The Inevitable Comparison With Cars

In around 1988, the Korean car company Hyundai gained entry into the US and Canadian car market with this practice, and although they got called on it (dumping is technically illegal), in the long run the strategy seems to have worked. It's strong evidence that price will trump differences in quality.

Imagine for a second that Hyundai had made their cars available for free. There would not have been one Hyundai left in the show rooms. Just about everyone would have one. I would have got one. Wouldn't you? I mean, a Hyundai was at the time definitely not the same quality as similar Toyota and Honda models, but would that have mattered? I mean, come on. A free car is a free car.

My contention is that if a product can gain entry into a marketplace by lowering its price to increase its appeal, then a free product that is close enough in quality to its priced competitors should spread like wildfire.

And yet, that has not happened with Windows and Linux. 200 US dollars is enough money to give most, if not all, consumers pause as to whether or not they can or should fit it into their budget. I can definitely appreciate having an extra 200 US dollars in my wallet.

Remember the concept of close enough for free. What if those free Hyundai cars came without radios, and didn't even have any dashboard space to install one? I'd still get one. Wouldn't you? Free. And close enough.

What if Hyundai had made their cars free, but didn't advertise? I imagine the rate of consumption of Hyundai cars would have started slower. Even so, it strikes me as inevitable that word of mouth would have eventually compensated until every single cash-strapped teenager with a new driver's license was out on the road with their new, free, Hyundai.

Suppose Hyundai didn't offer a warranty or service of any kind. Now would you refuse their free cars? I don't know about you, but free is still a pretty big trump card for me.

So long as the product I was picking up for free did not fail so poorly in its task as to cause harm or be completely useless, I would pick it up.

And yet, returning from the Hyundai analogy to the Linux reality, free Linux has not swept the market and become a large chunk of the marketplace. And I'm not even speculating on Linux suddenly becoming dominant. I'm just saying, it would have a big chunk of the market. Dare I say more than the Mac?

Hopefully the points I've made above have precluded the idea that Linux is not spreading faster simply because Linux falls down on some technical point. If I haven't drilled in my point enough already, here it is again. Linux is close enough to any other major operating systems that its price should have made it irresistible to a huge segment of consumers. There are enough consumers out there for whom 200 dollars is worth keeping, and whose computer needs would be easily met with Linux. But they use Windows, because they were able to do so and keep their 200 US dollars.

I'm Not Going To Name Names

Intellectually, people know Windows is not really for free, of course. And some people do actually buy the packaged Windows CDs in a box. Some even line up all night outside of the stores when the next version comes out.

But, I can't help but notice that among all my friends, all sorts of people I know from various walks of life, almost no one has paid for it. They usually know a guy who gives them a copy. They don't really ask where it's from. My friend bought a used laptop and it had Windows on it already. Not to mention it had the latest Adobe Creative Suite and Microsoft Office. All that, for about 300 US dollars. Did that price really include the software? Did the seller need to be compensated for anything other than the laptop? I know that all that software is cracked, but whether my friend thought about it or not, he didn't go out of his way to ask.

I started to perceive this issue of Windows being for free shortly after switching to Linux. Of course, I knew cracked copies of Windows existed when I was using Windows. But the market implications didn't have any bearing on me until I started using completely legally free software that was as good or better than the costly alternatives, and wondering why more people weren't making the same choice.

It became obvious to me when I would recommend Linux to people. As that "computer guy" who friends call up for technical advice, the opportunity to suggest using Linux instead of Windows comes up often enough. Since most of my friends do very basic things like surf the web, check email, and word processing that any operating system would handle just fine, Linux would be a reasonable choice. I would talk about how they could do everything they were already doing, but for free.

But the look in their eyes at the mention of the word free was clear. They already had a free operating system, so they weren't impressed by switching to something else that was free. How do I know that's what the look in their eyes meant? Because it wasn't the look in their eyes that would have been there if I had offered them a free MP3 player or some other consumer good that can't be simply copied and shared.

Here's another example. One time, a friend called me with an offer. He would pay me 50 bucks to get his laptop working again. Specifically, what he wanted was to back up all his data, reformat his disk, re-install Windows, and then restore his data. I asked if he still had the original install disks for Windows. He stammered a bit, and asked if I might not simply have some on hand I could use. He didn't mind if it was a different version of Windows - subtle code for hoping for a more recent version. The fifty dollars was for my labor. He didn't see getting a copy of Windows as a cost-associated item. It was no big deal, either he had a copy of Windows or I did, or he figured I knew a friend who did.

I felt kind of uncomfortable about the proposition, so I said no. If he had asked me this more recently, I would have offered to put Linux on his computer. But he probably would have said no, because it would seem like a more expensive offer to him. He would have compared free, unfamiliar Linux to free, comfortable Windows. The cost of getting used to the new environment, as easy as it might be, is probably more tangible to him than the money he technically should be spending but won't.

These aren't deliberate criminals who walked into a store, looked at a box of Windows, considered the price and then figured they'd go home and get a pirated version off of the internet. It just doesn't work that way. Windows is so ubiquitous that someone, somewhere, has a copy they can just give you. People think of getting a copy from a friend before they think of buying. Heck, someone will usually offer before you thought of buying.

I've sat at dinner tables with people who are by no means computer geeks, where one says they need to update their version of Windows. Maybe it's because their computer crashes a lot and they think upgrading might help. Maybe they bought a web cam or something that only has plug and play ability in the newer version. Someone, also not a computer geek, says they have a copy. A promise is made to hand it over later. The person with the copy to give likewise got it from someone else. It's as if Windows is just something that's around. If the value of the goods being exchanged is brought up as a concept at all, it's about the cost of the blank CDs. For example, the receiver might offer to provide a few blanks so the one doing the copying won't be out of pocket. A fifty cent CD is a cost item, but the copy of Windows on it isn't.

Freer Than Free

In fact, a free copy of Windows might even be freer than free. What I mean by that is, unlike most tangible consumer goods, pirated software is often easier to obtain and set up than making a legitimate purchase.

A friend of my father obtained a legitimate copy of Windows XP from a local guy who sells custom computers. He tried to install it but he was confused by the different serial codes, authorization keys, and verification checks to pass through. My father, who is quite good with computers, tried to help. When they finally had it all sorted out on which number went where, it turned out that the length of one of the serial codes didn't match the length of the input fields. They tried calling a customer service number, but, after working their way through 1-800 numbers and option menus, the net result was that the situation was not solvable with automated service and there were no live operators available because it was late Friday night. They tried to persist in figuring it out themselves, but were stopped cold when some maximum limit of install attempts was reached and it refused any further action. Eventually, a few days later with the help of the guy who originally provided the copy of Windows, it all got sorted out and my dad's friend can enjoy his legitimate copy of Windows.

This was an extreme case, but when you consider that he could have downloaded and installed a cracked version within hours, you start to get a sense of what I mean by "freer than free." To do it the legitimate way, say by buying online or having to trudge out to a brick-and-mortar store, he would get no more convenience than obtaining a pirated copy. At worst, getting an illegal copy would take much less time than the couple of days he actually experienced in doing things the legal way.

How to be a Pirate

Microsoft would no doubt blame the existence of pirated copies for this whole situation. And they wouldn't be wrong about the causes. But in terms of results, they then become part of a general push towards pirated software. All the security measures when one installs legitimate software makes a user feel like they're being punished for being good, the same way moviegoers who go to the theatres feel like they're not the ones who should be sitting through warnings not to download movies.

The hardest part about getting cracked software is justifying it to yourself. And when I say hard, I mean relative to the other obstacles to getting cracked software, so really it's not hard at all.

Clearly, all indications are that many people will often trade in a little morality for something that's valuable to own and free to get. To make the exchange of principles for goods, one has to cut a deal with their conscience by forming the right justification. I think most people simply wonder, what's the harm? Theft is usually distasteful not as much because of the gain of the thief but more because of the loss of the owner. In software, the guy who gave it to you didn't lose anything. And the company that originally made it? Microsoft seems to be doing all right, so surely this little individual act of sharing stuff among friends is no big deal.

But what happens when you add up all the individuals doing this? As mentioned above, it's hard to put real numbers on it. I'm going by a lot of anecdotal evidence here. And I have to admit for a while I wasn't so sure of my position.

Which Numbers Mean More?

In fact, I was shaken in my convictions by a conversation I had with my friend Ken who was considering switching from Windows to Linux. He was using Windows 2000 and was starting to feel the limitations of having less and less hardware and software available for a version that was fading into history. But he was skeptical about switching to Vista with all its DRM issues. He was really interested in Linux because he's one of the category of people that doesn't use pirated software. So for him, the prospect of saving the cost of a new operating system was worth at least some of research. As we talked about Linux, I mentioned the general points that I'm discussing here. He was shocked - shocked! - at the idea that there were that many people using cracked copies of Windows.

I left that conversation wondering if his viewpoint was wrong, or was mine? What about those people who stay up all night to buy a copy of Windows when the new version is released? What about the sales figures? But then what about the claims by software companies of revenues lost to piracy? What about the numbers of users on peer-to-peer networks? What do all the numbers mean, and which numbers mean more?

On the one hand, the fact that he was surprised by this whole idea of cracked Windows being the main reason why Linux isn't more successful even though it's free, made me realize that maybe it's not as obvious as I thought it was. That's when I thought about writing this article. But as I started writing, I was haunted a little by the fear that my perception of the ubiquity of cracked software was out of proportion.

Then, another small experience made me confident that I was firmly planted in reality. More anecdotal evidence, and I know the failings of anecdotal evidence. But I still take away from this anecdote enough conviction in my premise to stand by it.

Dancing Pirates

It was a couple months after my meeting with Ken, and I was spending a Monday afternoon sitting in a Starbucks writing on my laptop. There were three people, two women and a man, sitting at a table near to me. I couldn't help but overhear their conversation, as they were the only people really talking at the time. They were dancers, talking about making a web site for their dance troupe. One of the women was apparently both a dancer and a web designer.

The other woman was interested in doing a little web design of her own. After hearing a couple of key phrases, I abandoned my effort to be polite and not eavesdrop, and went into full listening mode.

The woman who was clearly the most computer literate of the three casually offered to give the other a copy of Dreamweaver. Just give it to her. The receiving woman didn't balk at being given a piece of proprietary software worth 400 US dollars. No, she merely said thanks and wondered if it wasn't too much trouble. The man joked something about burning software all the time, so it was no big deal. The receiving woman reciprocated by saying that she also frequently burned and shared software. This last comment was said in a way as to convey the assurance that this favour could be reciprocated.

These aren't people who would for even a second consider snatching a copy of Dreamweaver from the shelf of a software store and dashing out the door. They know what they are doing is sort of not right on some level, but it just doesn't feel that wrong. They are indifferent to the crime because the ease and pervasiveness of sharing software has obscured the value of the items they're giving away. They assure themselves they aren't really doing anything wrong because, after all, if the woman dancer wasn't offered a free copy, then she simply would never use it. She's not depriving the source company of any profit because it's not profit they would ever see from her anyway. That kind of logic, and there is some logic in it, helps obscure the cost of software in the minds of the casual cracked software user.

Consider how different the whole interaction would be if the woman receiving the pirated software was offered a 400 dollar stolen iPod.

I'm typing this as they speak, actually, and while they deviated from the topic for a bit, they're back to it. The woman receiving the software just confirmed that the version of Flash she's getting is version 8. She didn't need to know the version of Dreamweaver, just that it's the latest. Oh, and she was offered Photoshop, but she already has it. And now, as they finish up the details of the transaction, they are talking about the particulars of using the crack and how to install it. Just before they got up to leave, they described the crack as a "hassle."

If a bunch of dancers are so comfortable with the use of cracked software that they discuss circumventing authentication as being something merely in the way of using software they assume to be allowed to use for free, one can only imagine how pervasive the use and culture of cracked software is. So pervasive that the humour newspaper "The Onion" made the ironic headline "Photoshop Actually Bought", the implication being that to not purchase it was the norm.

The Mac Effect... Really?

At this point, we've gone a long way without mentioning something that Mr Kingsley-Hughes discussed in a follow up article, Three More Things That The Linux Community Doesn't Get. There he talked about "The Mac Effect." The idea was that people are capable of switching, and the fact that they chose Mac and not Linux, and paid for it, was supposed to be further evidence that Linux was not delivering a decent product.

But really, there's no difference between Windows and Mac OS. Mac has cracked software too. I know people who stay within the realm of Mac for the same reasons a lot of Windows users stay with Windows - so they can continue to have access to shared software within their circle of friends who also use Mac. Keep in mind that a lot of people think they're getting Mac OSX for free in the same way they think Windows comes with a computer for free. It just happened to be in the hardware they bought. They don't think of the computer as being potentially a couple hundred bucks less if it has Linux or no pre-installed OS. Then, when it comes time to upgrade the Mac OS, just ask that guy in your circle of friends who always has the latest Mac stuff.

Or, you could head out on any peer-to-peer network, and you'll find the latest version, no problem. Some people clearly do that. As I'm writing this right now, I'm looking at about 74 people seeding and 206 people sharing the latest Mac OSX on the infamous Pirate Bay web site. I could download it and have ready to install on a Mac in a couple of hours. I don't suppose there are many who would mind waiting a couple of hours in order to save themselves the 130 US dollar price listed on

The Most Effective Form of Anti-Piracy

But here's where we should mention the real cap on the sharing of cracked software. There are some people who do the honest thing and pay for their software because they fear cracked copies. Are they worried about Microsoft or Apple anti-piracy SWAT teams bursting through their windows and dragging them off in the middle of the night? No, they just don't want to get a computer virus.

All through this I've been speaking about how people can just go online and download things. While that takes a little know-how of where and how to do that, it's clearly common knowledge. The proof is in all the people downloading TV shows, movies, and music from peer-to-peer networks, enough to make copyright infringement news become commonplace. So, knowing how to get stuff on the net is common and it's not that there is anything technically stopping your average computer user from using the same interface they use to get music in order to get software. But many don't do that. They stick to audio and video downloads knowing they can't get a computer virus from an MP3 or AVI file.

There is enough fear, uncertainty, and doubt about getting a virus through downloaded software that most people want to get it from their buddy who says "I'm running it, and it's fine." And there are clearly enough of those buddies around. (Or maybe dance troupes are particularly intent on sharing software).

As should be clear by now, computer viruses on peer-to-peer networks are nowhere near stopping people from sharing software. It just hands more focus back to the friend-to-friend network that happens face-to-face, which is as common as ever. Really I just bring it up because I believe that the threat of getting a virus is more effective than security measures in keeping people from sharing software on the Internet with complete impunity.

I have no idea how cracked software becomes available in the first place. Somewhere upstream are actual computer pirates I suppose. By "actual," I mean someone who alters the software so that it's shareable, not merely someone who shares it. Shady programmers in Russia who cleverly get new releases and reverse engineer the security out? Employees inside Microsoft who trade them in some kind of software black market? Disgruntled employees maybe? I have no idea. Don't really need to know, either. Neither do the dancers.

Whatever the source, the distribution is so widespread that software in general, including Windows, is not viewed as an expensive consumer product. It's viewed as being for free.

So when someone looks at Linux, all they see is the unfamiliarity of it, and nothing there that's so good to make them switch from Windows. After all, they're not saving anything or gaining anything by switching.

What If Windows Wasn't Free?

This raises interesting questions. If Microsoft were to somehow develop the security system that ensured every single user of Windows paid for it, then how many people would start considering the actually legal free and close enough option?

Theoretically, if everyone who had a cracked copy of Windows now switched to a legitimate copy of Linux, then the user base might be expansive enough that all sorts of things might change. Game companies might start offering their titles for Linux. Hardware manufacturers might distribute Linux drivers as often as they do Mac and Windows drivers. Then more people might find Linux even easier. Perhaps the situation might snowball. Perhaps people who had held back because of lacking features or incompatible hardware would have their concerns solved. Those same people who were about to pay for Windows would consider going for the free option. Microsoft might actually lose some sales and market share, and they'd feel it in their bottom line.

I'm not one for conspiracy theories, but the next logical question is, assuming I've made some sense up to now, isn't it ultimately in Microsoft's interest to allow pirated copies of Windows to be out there?

The feasibility of that strategy would depend on how well Microsoft could balance out letting pirated copies exist for general use, so that people felt it was the operating system, while at the same time ensuring that a substantial section of the market, mainly companies probably, would not want to bother with any potential legal hassles.

Personally, I don't think that is Microsoft's strategy. It comes with some risks that I think they would deem too high. One leaked memo about acknowledging the benefit of pirated software would cause chaos in all sorts of ways.

But maybe they don't have to have any kind of official position. If cracked software helps keep Windows in business, and virus threats are more effective than security measures in keeping cracked software from eating too much into Microsoft's bottom line, then one might argue that the main mechanisms for Microsoft's success come from outside Microsoft. Just enough piracy to maintain dominance. Just enough of a virus threat to keep it from getting out of control. That can't be said with certainty, but it's food for thought.

But in any case, my point here is not about the causes of why Windows is "free," just with the results.

My contention is that Linux would win over the hearts and minds of more, maybe most, users if their wallets were actually involved in the decision to choose one or the other.

You Can Tell Who's Paying

My friend Ken, who I mentioned earlier, is evidence of that. Unlike a lot of people I know, he really does reach for his wallet when he upgrades his OS, and that's why he proactively came to me with questions about Linux. I don't know if he'll actually adopt Linux, but he's very seriously considering it, because, like most people, if he can save a couple hundred bucks, he will. What he's not doing is just casually dismissing Linux out of hand like most people who are strangely far less interested in free software than they would be in anything else for free.

Enough people feel no connection to their wallets when considering operating systems to perpetuate the unspoken assumption that Windows is free. And as a result, Linux is forced to make its case based on much more nebulous, personally biased, and complicated comparisons about which one is "better" or "worse." And that's a debate that can never be pursued objectively, with objective results. Or at least, my experience in hearing people argue about it is that it never stays objective for long.

This idea that Windows is, to most everyone, effectively free, is in my opinion the single most significant factor in explaining why Linux isn't doing better than it is.

I'm not even saying that Linux would or should necessarily dominate or wipe out Windows. I'm only saying that if the market for operating systems operated under the same rules as other consumer goods, then Linux would have a larger share of the market.

If every user who had a cracked copy of Windows had a legitimate version of Linux instead, what would the percentage of computers running Linux be? More than there are now, that's for sure.

What can be done with this information?

Perhaps one of the conclusions that can be made is that the best strategy for proponents of free operating systems is to help develop better protection for paid software.

What Microsoft can do with the information is a more interesting question. I doubt any of their payment and security schemes will ever really stop the cracked copies from being around. Vista was supposed to come with verifications that would be impossible to avoid. But you can go online right now and download copy of Vista that will appear as authenticated to the Genuine Advantage system.

In any case, the more successful their defenses become, the more people really have to reach for their wallet when considering whether or not to upgrade, the wider the door of opportunity opens for Linux to step in and say "you can still do everything you do now for free."

What if Microsoft were to recognize that and adopt a different strategy. Free copies of Windows for home use? Corporate packages that are paid? My guess is that most of their money comes from company purchases anyway. It seems possible to me that they could switch to a model that allows free personal use and paid corporate use with little to no impact on their bottom line. Because it would just be an official adoption of what may already be the reality.

I'm not anticipating that happening any time soon, because a paradigm shift of that proportion will meet resistance on many levels due to the needs of a large profit-driven organization with many employees and shareholders. However, I'm here to talk about products, not production, so the inertia Microsoft would face in making Windows more free is outside the scope of this article.

But, just supposing for a minute that they could, then by making their software at least partially free, or free to a point, they can slow down the free competition to a crawl and stay in business for a long, long time. Just like free copies of Windows are holding off free copies of Linux right now.

What Can You Do With This Information?

In closing, I'd like to just leave you with something to think about. If you're using a cracked copy of Windows, you have at least one less reason to feel guilty. After all, you may be keeping Microsoft in business in a roundabout, unintended way. You can't admit to them that's what you're doing, though, which makes it a strange position to be in. And at the same time, another thing you might be doing in a roundabout way is slowing down the development of software that you could use both for free and without any moral or legal ambiguities. How you justify all that in your mind is up to you.

For me, I've developed a policy whenever it comes to debates on Linux, Windows, and Mac.

As a long time user of Windows and Mac, who has switched to Linux, I can tell you that any debate based on feature, security, or stability comparisons between Linux, Mac, and Windows is a battle of grey perceptions, not black and white certainties. As such, they are eclipsed entirely by the issue of the market distortions of software piracy.

You can prefer one or the other for any reason you like. But to convince me that Linux isn't good enough to take for free, you'd have to not only show me a side-by-side comparison where Windows did what Linux couldn't, but, more importantly, I won't even start the discussion with you unless you show me your proof of purchase (for every copy of Windows you have for personal use, and all your applications) to convince me that in your mind the features you're comparing were actually worth 200 US dollars or more.