Sunday, 31 August 2008 16:26

It's a joke: In a Linux world without walls who needs Windows?

Microsoft are poised to launch a new $USD 300 million advertising campaign this week, starring comedian Jerry Seinfeld among others. The marketing types responsible are intending to counter Apple’s successful "I’m a Mac" line, but the slogan picked out is simply on the wrong foot from the start and is thwarted by Linux immediately.

This isn’t the first time Microsoft have enlisted the help of popular comedy stars. 13 years ago I received a promotional VHS video cassette spruiking the virtues of Windows ’95 starring Jennifer Anniston and Matthew Perry, aka Rachel and Chandler from “Friends.” Sadly, my friends and family still to this day have to put up with me repeating a segment of dialogue that occurred when the duo approach Bill Gates desktop computer.

“Click on My Computer,” says one.
“But your computer isn’t here.”
“No, Bills’ My Computer.”
“You call your computer Bill?”

The other 29 minutes and 57 seconds of the video have escaped my mind, but “Bills’ My Computer” has forever etched itself into the finite storage space of my mind, squeezing out such things as how to perform basic vehicle maintenance.

Fast forward to the present day and neither Friends nor VHS are with us. Come to think of it, neither is the Seinfeld show. However, the war between operating systems is definitely hotting up again.

In my schooldays we debated the virtues of the highly-inspired Commodore 64 over the rubber keys of the Sinclair Spectrum, the lack of software for the Microbee, the price of the Apple II and the wide range of other personal computers of the mid to late ‘80’s. The more business-oriented computer mags hinted at the existence of such things as CP/M and UNIX. Some kids even had IBM clones in their households but in the gaming environment of youth they were the unlucky ones; it was uncommon for these to come standard with sound cards or game controllers.

Time marched on and with the death of 8-bit computing, the fading away of CP/M and the obscurity of PC-based UNIX systems, the battlefield levelled to Microsoft Windows vs Apple Macintosh. The revolutionary Amiga was gone, and so too the Atari ST.

The Macintosh always had its legions of fans but suffered from a hefty pricetag and a lack of a clone market. By contrast Microsoft enjoyed massive success by selling licenses to every single PC manufacturer. It really was the popularity of IBM, and the desire of manufacturers to get a piece of their pie, that made Microsoft what it is today.

A decade ago Linux had made its debut but was considered firstly a hobbyist system, then later a system for experts. It hadn’t reached the heights of usability that distros like Ubuntu are becoming famed for.

Apple turned their fortunes around with the release of the iPod. This elegant, massively hyped mp3 player became a hot item for geeks and fashionistas alike. It raised the public consciousness of Apple. It introduced the Apple flare for design and usability and seeded many a thought that Apple computers were worth a try.

So, what about these ads then?


In recent times Apple played on this rising public opinion through a series of “I’m a PC / I’m a Mac” advertisements. The older, stuffy-looking “PC” gentleman talks about his necessities of virus protection and expertise and tolerance during operation. The hip young “Mac” guy questions the need for any of that and “just works.”

I have no numbers on whether these advertisements legitimately boosted sales for Apple, but if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then there’s no doubt these advertisements became entrenched in popular culture, having been parodied for most all tech comparisons since. Amid the close releases of the Sony Playstation III and Nintendo Wii games consoles you could easily find “I’m a Playstation / I’m a Wii” spoof videos to name but one example.

So it comes as no surprise Microsoft wants to counter the effect these advertisements are having and hence the emergence of the $300 million campaign. Most of the details are still scarce at this stage but what has been confirmed is that Bill Gates will make an appearance as well as various others, with Jerry Seinfeld as the headline act. For his contribution, Seinfeld receives a cool $10 million. Not bad work, even if the continuity is somewhat amiss: after all, Seinfeld actually had a chunky style Mac visible in his apartment in the sitcom and he appeared in Apple’s earlier “Think Different” campaign.

I guess celebrity endorsements have always been with us; after all, William Shatner promoted the Vic-20 over 25 years ago. Thanks to the wonders of YouTube you can even see that retro-ad (as well as the Anniston/Perry Windows ’95 video) along with a host of celebrity computer ads.

More important than who is in the ad is the message of the ad. Here’s where regular readers will be most surprised. Microsoft have gone with the line “Windows not walls.” That’s right; the thrust of the campaign will be that Microsoft Windows removes barriers.

Specifically, Windows removes barriers to communication with the operating system. Undoubtedly this will attempt to tap into the constraints MacOS imposes on expert users. With a Mac you might be able to get up and running quickly but you never ever get the feeling you can tweak “under the hood.” Perhaps that’s one of its strengths, offering as consistent an environment as possible for every person but at the end of the day there’s no doubt Windows offers more customisations and extensibility.

However, the world isn’t just Windows vs MacOs anymore. There is a third force gaining market share, namely the free open source operating system Linux. Through the rise of netbooks – and with Windows Vista turning consumers to seek alternatives – Linux has been increasingly gaining traction. It may not have a large market share, but it has a growing market share and that’s what’s important.

For the Linux-savvy, the Microsoft tagline is beyond belief.


After all, the fundamental basis behind Linux is freedom. And while this can be taken to mean “free” as in “free beer”, having no cost, it really means something deeper. It is “free” as in “free speech.” It is software which offers vast permissive rights upon its users. This is in stark contrast to proprietary operating systems which have complex and costly licensing strategies and which imposes restrictions on how the software may be used.

It seems astonishing for Microsoft to credit itself as removing walls. It would be on par with the Mensheviks running an advertising campaign along the lines, “Support your right-wing candidate, not those lefty Bolsheviks” while the Republican Party stands nearby.
Ok, maybe that was a bit obscure. How about another analogy: it’s like two gamers arguing over whether Jill Valentine or Claire Redfield is the most recognised female game character. Along comes someone, let’s call him Alex Z-R, say. He just has to say two words: “Lara Croft” and the gamers realise they’ve been pwned good and proper.

Under a free software regime there simply are no walls. It’s not a case of removing, or even breaking down, walls but of shattering them. Smashing them to pieces. Users can use their computers. Software is plentiful and is available. It is accessible, it is attainable. It can be shared, it can be reused, it can be enhanced, it can be customised.

Linux users have little experience with walls; these systems are constructed by architects to work without walls. The source code is freely distributed and they are conceived to be continuously linked to other structures, working from the bottom up and not the other way around.
Linux is breaking down barriers to adoption. It spawned the whole netbook platform by completely eliminating the Windows tax on computers. It has made viable the idea of a cheap computer for third-world and developing nations.

To hear the Redmond giant preach on the platform of “removing walls” is jarring and amazing. It is to claim ground that is not theirs, and which does not reach the heights attained by the work of the open source community.

At the end of the day the Microsoft campaign beginning September 4th might just as well quote George’s girlfriend and say, “yada, yada, yada” because let’s face it; in a world without walls who needs windows? Or gates for that matter?

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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