Microsoft, Open Source, Academia, and That Magic Touch

by Dustin Puryear

Has anyone read Putting Our Own House In Order? I thought this little quip was funny: "Tony's background is in academia, a place where Microsoft has had some challenges." (Queue the old graphic of a million students sitting in class with Macs.) Okay, pretty accurate really. When I was going to LSU ages ago it was cool even back then to have a Mac instead of a PC for a laptop.

Mind you, when I went to LSU my first assembly class was on an IBM 3-something-another and I remember learning that there was no stack for us to use. We had to do all kinds of weird things. I had already learned PC x86 assembly by then (anyone remember coding or watching intros or demos in high school?), and so I thought the IBM assembly was pretty sucky. Still, I did learn a lot. ANYWAY.

The basic premise of the blog about Microsoft is that they have made some strides, but have quite a ways to go. I think the discussion about Microsoft and academia is pretty on point. Most universities basically give Microsoft Office away (by "give away", I guess I should say "license thousands of copies on your behalf"), but that's not the point being made. The issue is: Is Microsoft making any headway in being a real power in the academic side of universities, not the business side?

Even back in my day, you could go to a "Windows lab" and work with Visual Studio or go to a "UNIX lab" and use vi and gcc. And you know what? All the fun was in the UNIX lab? And not just for me. There was just a difference in the attitudes and ethic across the two lab environments. People in the Windows lab were trying to get their project in before it was 11:59 PM, while people in the UNIX lab were goofing off, playing with code, and... trying to get their project in before it was 11:59 PM.

What is it about UNIX, vi, emacs, gcc, perl, and INSERT-HERE that makes it fun to play with, while Visual Studio just makes you want to... well, work?

There's an argument here that the point of coding is work but *cough cough*, no, I don't think so. Most of the innovations in software are from people that tweak, fiddle, and play with concepts, code, and ways of doing things. And THAT is the essence of academia: The freedom to play and learn and make progress.

Licensing is a big factor here. But there's something else, and I can't quite put my finger on it. I think Microsoft is trying to figure out the same thing.


2008-04-09 06:56:53
It seems to me that POSIX-like systems are better for tweaking and fiddling because of the different tool philosophy: a lot of little Power Tools that can be used and combined in various pipelines. I doubt that, from the learner's perspective, vi and emacs and gcc are "fun to play with" (effective once learned, absolutely, fun to learn, not so much).

I also doubt that licensing is such a huge factor. Not all UNIX was and is Open Source...which caused BSD some trouble, recall? For people starting out, the low cost (high value) of Open Source matters far more to them than the possibility of actually viewing or modifying the source.

And, as you say, the preference for Apple laptops or the mass usage of Microsoft Office are entirely different questions that cover ALL students as opposed to just Comp Sci. The popularity of its laptops is a simple function of Apple's focuses on marketing and hardware design.

2008-04-16 05:36:46
Well, I would argue that *nix (and Perl especially) makes it easier to "get things done", and therefore there's more time for goofing off, but I don't think that's the (only) answer. Culturally, the *nix people are more social. Do a Google hunt for a *nix problem, and you'll get lots of sites with people sharing solutions. Do a Google hunt for a Windows problem, and you'll typically find sites trying to sell solutions before you'll find any sharing for free. The proprietary mindset of the corporation seeps down through the user base, whereas the Free/Open mindset of the *nix distributions has a similar effect on its user base.