Facts behind Microsoft's anti-Linux campaign

Microsoft wanted to keep its anti-Linux campaign factual, but somewhere along the line the real facts may have become too expensive to buy.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

Back in 2002, Jim Allchin was co-president of Microsoft's Platforms and Services Division and was, in his own words, "scared" of the momentum behind Linux, as noted in an email [PDF] sent to several of his direct reports.

Why scared? Because Windows was starting to lose to Linux:

My conclusion: We are not on a path to win against Linux. We must change some things and we must do it immediately. The current white papers, etc. are too high level and they are not going to cut it.

So what did Allchin do? As court documents in the Comes vs. Microsoft antitrust suit demonstrate, and as Roy Schestowitz pointed out on his blog Sunday, Allchin started to buy facts. Lots of facts.

What facts? "Facts" about Windows alleged superiority as a preemptive kernel and asychronous I/O, facts that demonstrate that "Linux is old unix." Facts about Windows alleged security superiority over Linux. Facts that go to the heart of Red Hat and IBM's patent indemnification offerings and, frighteningly, Allchin seems to be foretelling Microsoft's later patent FUD against Linux:

We need to understand exactly the risk a customer is under if a patent lawsuit happens and Linux is challenged....There MUST be risks to customers that are being passed on. I want this understood precisely. We need to get the license from IBM given to customers and investigate.

To his credit, Allchin's e-mail constantly re-emphasizes that he's looking for facts, not tabloid marketing against Linux:

Bill [Veghte]/Brian [Valentine]: I need to ask you to take ownership of driving this ahead What I want to see is a package including ALL of these items that we can provide to the field within 2 months (MAX). I am scared....Please remember NO marketing. Facts. No anger toward Linux. Just facts.

But I have to wonder if in amid so much "fact" creation, the truth sometimes got lost.

As reported in 2003 by The Register, among others, Microsoft's incessant drumbeat on "the facts" against Linux displayed a curious infatuation with Linux. If Microsoft truly were better, why spend so much ink (and cash) on building a case against it, at least, one based on "facts"? It seemed a perfect Hamlet moment, wherein Queen Gertrude pithily dismisses a character's comments with "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."

The Register wrote in 2003 of Microsoft's fact-buying campaign:

The study is apparently to be used by Microsoft's new kinder, gentler and more fact-based GM for platform strategy Martin Taylor in his campaign to convince customers that nine out of ten cats who expressed a preference reckoned that Linux is pooh. And in this campaign, he has the best facts money can buy.

Did Microsoft cross the line with its "Get the Facts" campaign? Almost certainly. Even so, I'm impressed by Allchin's desire to avoid marketing and stick to facts. The problem is that it's hard to hold to facts when only one side is presenting (and buying) them.

Microsoft eventually disbanded its much-maligned Get the Facts campaign. The former "Get the Facts" Web site is now a much happier place that invites customers to "compare" Linux and Windows, but is much softer in doing so.

Have the facts changed? No. But Microsoft finally came to the realization that its customers weren't stupid and could separate fact from fiction. Sometimes Windows is cheaper. Sometimes it's more secure, is a better technical fit for an organization, etc. But those aren't The Facts. They're site-by-site facts for specific customers, and arguably don't reflect the broader reality, one that has seen rampant, massive uptake of Linux over the past six years since Allchin ordered a directive to find and market "the facts."