Microsoft faces off with Linux fans

An executive braves the crowds at LinuxWorld to field questions about how Microsoft conducts business and whether it will consider making Linux versions of applications such as Office and SQL Server.

NEW YORK--Taking the bull by the horns, Microsoft sent an executive to field questions from LinuxWorld Conference and Expo attendees here.

Martin Taylor, general manager of platform strategies for Microsoft, jokingly donned a flak jacket before making the case on Thursday that people should buy Microsoft's software for its quality, security and legal protection.


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The move was part of the software giant's marketing campaign to debate the merits of its software based on facts rather than emotions, but some resentment and skepticism about Microsoft's practices bubbled up through the questions.

"Do you promise not to engage in unethical or anticompetitive behavior against the Linux community?" asked one attendee, while another shouted, "Open the protocols!"

Many questions indicated demand for Linux versions of Microsoft's applications, such as Internet Information Server for delivering Web pages, Office for word processing and other desktop tasks, Internet Explorer for browsing the Web, and SQL Server for housing databases.

Taylor said Linux versions of Microsoft software would be expensive and could expose intellectual property that the company wants to keep secret. "It's not that easy to take Office and drop it on Linux and have the same experience," Taylor said.

Microsoft's presence at the show and the presentation was eye-opening to some.

"I was quite surprised to see them here today," said E. Andrew Mondore, a systems administrator from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who's been using Linux for three years.

Some of Taylor's responses left him unmoved, however. "He answered the questions he wanted to and didn't answer the ones he didn't," Mondore said in an interview.

Mondore, who describes himself as pragmatic when it comes to technology decisions, would like to see a Linux version of Internet Explorer browser software. "There are so many poorly written Web sites that don't work with anything but IE. That is a big problem," he said.

Taylor made no bones that his objective is to sell Windows, ruling out the possibility of Microsoft's selling versions of Linux.

"That says I don't want to sell Windows Server to anybody," he said--hardly the message Microsoft wants to send.

And though Taylor acknowledged that his customers often use a mix of operating systems, Microsoft isn't likely to make life easier for Linux users in some areas--for example, by including software to let Windows computers read files stored on Linux machines.

"The ownership is on the community" for such support, he said, likening the situation to Microsoft's responsibility for supporting then-dominant Novell NetWare in the 1990s.

Asked if the prospect of Linux on the desktop keeps him awake at night, Taylor likened it to the challenge from network computers--stripped-down "thin clients" that rely on a central server for computing horsepower--that emerged from companies such as Oracle in the 1990s. That threat rose but fizzled, leaving Microsoft's desktop dominance unscathed.

Taylor also touted Microsoft's Shared Source Initiative, in which the company lets outsiders see some underlying source code but does not permit them to change or redistribute it, as open-source software licenses typically do.

Signing up for the shared source program doesn't pose problems for open-source programmers, according to Taylor. Participating in a shared source project "in no way contaminates yourself or any programs you're working on," he said.

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