Commentary
10/29/2004
07:04 PM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
Commentary

Business Technology: Microsoft And Its Blind Spot: Linux

Steve Ballmer's letter to customers said nothing about the widespread reality of tens of thousands of Microsoft customers who are eager to deploy BOTH Windows and Linux.



It's not so much what he did say; it's more a matter of what he didn't say. Steve Ballmer's letter to customers that was also artfully distributed to media across the world said that some analysts say a Windows enterprise solution is often less expensive than a comparable Linux enterprise solution.

He said some analysts question "how safe the Linux platform really is."

He said some analysts contend customers can install enterprise Windows solutions faster and with less support than enterprise Linux solutions.

He said some analysts say it's harder to find and/or more expensive to engage qualified Linux personnel than it is to find qualified Windows personnel.

He said that "no vendor today stands behind Linux with full IP indemnification," but that when volume-licensing customers license a Microsoft product, "we provide uncapped protection for legal costs associated with a patent, copyright, trademark, or trade secret claim alleging infringement by a Microsoft product."

He also talked about how some studies show Windows outperforms Linux in Unix migration, and about the need for careful long-term planning, and about how this choice--this black/white, either/or choice--is critically important.

But Steve Ballmer said nothing about the widespread reality of tens of thousands of Microsoft customers who are eager to deploy BOTH Windows and Linux, and are quite naturally looking to the most-powerful and -influential software company in the world to help them with that. And Steve Ballmer had plenty of opportunity to say something about it--his 2,400-word letter certainly spared no detail or description in touting Windows-only strategies. And there's nothing wrong with that--as the CEO of Microsoft, it's certainly Steve Ballmer's job to tell the world about the business value of the company's products.

But.

Ballmer could have tossed at least a bone, a chunk of gristle, or even a crumb to the companies that buy tons of Microsoft products but also want to use Linux. Whether their motivation is to avoid extreme overdependence on one vendor or their belief that in spite of Ballmer's letter Linux outperforms Windows in some situations or their desire to keep all options open, don't they deserve some recognition from Microsoft? (Got an opinion on this? Feel free to share your feedback not only with us, but also with Ballmer colleague Martin Taylor, Microsoft's general manager in charge of anti-Linux strategy).

OTHER VOICES

"Did you know that apparel companies are just now getting up to speed on global supply chains? Or that IBM has a thing for small firms both here and in China? OK, well, did you know that Borders Books is cleaning house in terms of its heterogeneous infrastructure? We thought not. That's why we're looking into those topics this week."

-- InformationWeek's "Works In Progress" blog, Oct. 25


After all, look at how Ballmer opens his letter (and bear in mind it's a 4-1/2-page opus, not a few scribbles on the back of an envelope leaving him no room to address such an apparently marginal topic): "In the thousands of meetings that Microsoft employees have with customers around the world every day, many of the same questions consistently surface: Does an open-source platform really provide a long-term cost advantage compared with Windows? Which platform offers the most secure computing environment? ... In moving from an expensive Unix platform, what's the best alternative in terms of migration?"

For cryin' out loud, what a perfect setup, and what a blown opportunity! Ballmer still could have used four or even 4-1/4 full pages to say how great Windows is, but couldn't he have acknowledged something like this: "And while we strongly believe our customers gain the greatest business value through deploying all-Windows environments, we realize some of you nevertheless want to run both Windows and Linux. This has been a source of enormous debate within our company because we see Linux as a significant competitive threat, and we feel we could make a great case for resisting the call to simplify the integration of our products with those of a major competitor. However, in the interest of doing what we think is best for our customers, we are creating a new business unit called Windows/Open Source Integration Services to help you optimize your efforts to deploy both products in whatever ways work best for your company. That's our latest effort in helping you be as successful as possible, and we look forward to sharing with your our most recent and best innovations in this area."

The appeal of the heterogeneous environment has certainly not been lost on some of Microsoft's top hardware partners--Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM--all of whom are vigorously touting new Linux-based servers and solutions. In fact, last week at almost the same time that Microsoft sent out the Ballmer letter, Dell expanded its commitment to enterprise-level Linux by agreeing to begin offering by the end of this year Dell servers with Novell's SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 preinstalled. That, reports my colleague Larry Greenemeier, comes on top of the similar Linux deal that's been in place for 15 months between Dell and Red Hat for its enterprise version of Linux.

And some of the analyst findings cited so assiduously by Ballmer in his letter can be open to some interpretation, according to my colleague John Foley: "A Yankee Group report is among the data showing Windows to be cheaper than Linux in some situations. But that's the catch, it's only in certain circumstances, such as when a company is already heavily invested in Microsoft software or has internal Windows expertise. In other cases, Linux is sometimes cheaper."

Maybe I'm all wet on this. Maybe some/many/most of you are moving away from heterogeneous environments and toward all-for-one commitments. Maybe it's insanity--or at least wobbly kneed socialism--for me to suggest that Microsoft should put its customers' interests ahead of the company's own competitive intensity. Maybe Linux really is nothing but a pimple on an elephant's keister and is managing to glom far more publicity than it deserves purely because the argument links it to Microsoft. But if that's the case, then why are HP and IBM and Dell increasingly committed to Linux? Why are those "thousands" of customers cited even by Steve Ballmer asking about open-source solutions and Linux? Why, indeed, would Steve Ballmer and Microsoft make such a big deal with this letter about Linux if they weren't feeling pressured by market forces to speak out and make a very public case?

A year ago in this space, I wrote an open letter to Microsoft about this same issue with Linux. At that time, I said, "The problem with this Linux thing, though, is that in the battle to marginalize, isolate, stigmatize and perhaps even cripple Linux, it's not going to be just Linux that bears the brunt of your assaults. Instead, it will be thousands of your customers who will also feel the nontrivial effects of that isolation and marginalization."

I wish I could say, "What a difference a year makes." But nothing about Microsoft's attitude regarding Linux has changed. For customers, that's a shame. And it could turn out to be an even bigger shame for Microsoft.


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