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Microsoft's waffling on Linux

The software giant dismisses it as ill-adapted to the marketplace, but also holds it up as a competitor while fighting off monopoly accusations.

When it comes to Linux, Microsoft wants to have it both ways.

While the software giant dismisses the "open source" operating system as ill-adapted to the marketplace, the company simultaneously holds it up to be a competitor--convenient while Microsoft is fighting off monopoly accusations from the Justice Department.

Asked if Linux is threatening to Microsoft, Ed Muth, group product manager for Windows 2000, flatly says no.

But in nearly the same breath, Muth said that Linux does in fact compete with Windows NT, although he believes that "Linux also competes, perhaps more vigorously, with other versions of Unix."

A competitor but not a threat? "A fine line," observed Dwight Davis, an analyst at Summit Strategies, noting the obvious benefits of Microsoft's pointing to competitive dangers in light of the monopoly accusations it faces.

But regardless of how Microsoft perceives Linux, the operating system is a good bargaining chip in hardware vendors' negotiations with Microsoft on Windows licensing fees, Davis said.

Linux, a Unix-like operating system, has been under development for several years by hundreds of programmers across the Internet. More recently, though, it has cropped on corporate radar screens as big-name computing companies such as IBM, Compaq, SAP, and Intel have bought into the movement. Hardware vendors now are making Linux-ready systems in the same parts of their product line that Microsoft's Windows NT appears.

Linux advocates thronged the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo last week, some declining to engage in Microsoft-bashing, others proclaiming that their operating system to already have defeated their Windows nemesis.

But Microsoft isn't going down without a fight.

In defense of Windows
Windows has a fundamental advantage over Linux, Muth said, in that it provides people a more user-friendly interface. "Most of the world does not want to run Unix, particularly on their desktop. They want access to a graphical user interface," he said.

Linux is getting gradually more comfortable sporting pop-up menus and such refinements. Even ardent advocates, though, recognize that Unix is complex and that Linux has a ways to go before the non-technically adept can use it easily. "Microsoft has been pretty good at simplifying computing environments, broadly speaking," Davis said.

Muth also pointed to fragmentation in the Linux market, saying there are at least 14 different commercially available versions of Linux.

Linux lovers say 98 percent of Linux is unvarying from one distribution to the next, decrying accusations of "splintering" as the mere techno-propaganda knownas FUD--"fear, uncertainty, and doubt." Nevertheless, commercial software andhardware vendors typically are offering their products with a limited number of Linux distributors.

And Muth questioned the depth of the commitment that hardware vendors really have for Linux. Sure, they certify some systems as working with Linux, but do they provide incentives for their sales force to push the new operating system?, he asked. Do they guarantee the systems will offer high availability?

When looking at companies such as IBM or HP that offer computers with several operating systems, "What we find is that most of these vendors do accommodate and support a variety of operating systems on their platform, but they place the deepest investments in field readiness, customer satisfaction, and performance tuning in Windows NT or their own proprietary versions of Unix," Muth said.

On the biggest criticisms of Windows, its abilities to resist crashing and to handle lots of transactions, Muth said that some vendors guarantee some NT systems to be up and running 99.9 percent of the time, and that there's no evidence that Linux can outperform NT in handling transactions in complex network environments.

Moreover, with Windows 2000, the operating system won't have to be taken down as often to change settings that today requires a reboot, Muth said.

Davis, though, was more circumspect. Windows' biggest advantage is its installed base, he said. "If you're an existing NT site, that's the natural evolution for you. If you're a relatively happy NT user, you're probably not going to be prone to go to any Unix, including Linux," he said.

Choppy seas for Microsoft and Linux
Davis believes Linux will eat into potential future NT sales.

Microsoft, right now, is vulnerable to Linux, he added. "They don't have a great way to deal with it at the moment. The real way to deal with it is to get Windows 2000 [the next version of Windows NT] out the door. In the mean time, they have a fairly aging iteration of Windows NT, and they're up against a very rapidly evolving Linux."

Windows 2000's third, feature-complete beta test version is due to go out at the end of April, and Microsoft argues it's technically feasible to get the final product shipping in the fourth quarter of 1999, but the ship date has been slipping and it's more likely the product will turn out in 2000, Davis said.

Linux faces long-term obstacles of its own, not so much competition with Windows, but rather cultural and legal ones surrounding the open source operating system. Under the terms of its license, the core Linux programming instructions must be provided openly in its original form, a stark contrast to the tight wraps companies like Microsoft keep over their code.

Linux is also trying to push ever-higher up the scale of complexity and innovation, providing corporate customers with a road map of future enhancements, and deal with the culture clash as idealistic open source programmers mingle with for-profit companies, Davis said.

Despite these obstacles in the open source world, Davis believes Microsoft is likely to give open source programming a try. "I could see them identifying elements of code that they provide as open source," though retaining ultimate control over what gets released as a product.

"Microsoft is built on intellectual property rights, and it's never going to do acquiesce to a model, namely open source, that is antithetical to its intellectual property rights," Davis said.