(C)opyright Eben Moglen, 1998.    |    Mail: moglen@columbia.edu

The Microbrain Launch

A Memo from The Invisible Barbecue

April 21, 1998

Bill Gates personally demonstrated Windows '98 at its public launch yesterday in Chicago. As you may have heard, his so-called operating system crashed during the demonstration. Software that fails the smoke test when the CEO stages a personal dog and pony show is, by the standards of the industry as I learned them, junkware.

For contrast, the system called old.law.columbia.edu -- which routes all my email, runs three mailing lists, mounts my course web pages and my electronically-published scholarship, serves an average of 750 web hits per day, and performs a host of other complex functions -- runs the free GNU/Linux operating system. Far more sophisticated than Windows, it is available at no cost, without redistribution limitation, to anyone on the planet who wants it; it also runs on hardware that wouldn't be capable of meeting the exorbitant needs of Windows '9x.

The point? Old.law ran, continuously, from Oct 3, 1997 to Apr 1, 1998, without ever crashing, rebooting, or experiencing any other form of system disruption. I restarted it, after 4325 hours of continuous heavy use, because its durability was actively inconvenient. I attempted to make it fail on numerous occasions, but could not.

Several questions of professional interest arise: (1) Why -- meaning, as an outcome of what social process -- do people believe Microbrain makes good software? (2) Why do people believe free software cannot be technically superior to commercial software? (3) Why do enterprises prefer software with high maintenance costs to software with low maintenance costs and zero acquisition or upgrade cost? (4) What benefit, in this instance, does so-called intellectual property law confer on society, as opposed to the monopolist whose bad software is thus protected against quality-improving derivative works? (5) How do the processes of social misperception contribute to the legal situation? And, (6) why does the law school where I work, and pretty much every other technically sophisticated workplace on the planet, spend so much of its time and money coping with failures of Microbrain Windows, which is the single most expensive item in our software support activity?

Questions 1-5 are posed as a challenge for those who believe that the mythology of pervasive economic rationality is useful in explaining all sociolegal phenomena. Question 6 is not merely of academic interest.


"Windows" and "Linux" are registered trademarks. "Microbrain" is just a fact.