Services & Software

Microsoft to take direct shots at Linux rivals

From now on, Redmond won't just fight the idea of the open-source operating system; it's taking specific aim at Red Hat, Novell and IBM.

Microsoft is refining its "Get the Facts" Linux attack, taking specific aim at Red Hat, Novell and IBM rather than the broader movement around the open-source operating system.

The new phase tactic is based on the fact that the vast majority of Linux users buy their software from a company rather than downloading and assembling freely available products on their own, Martin Taylor, general manager of Microsoft's platform strategy, said in an interview Wednesday. For the effort, Microsoft will compare its own products with those of its competitors--for example, Red Hat's application server software for running Java software.

"It's less about Linux and more about Red Hat, Novell and IBM," Taylor said.

Taylor is Microsoft's top executive in charge of responding to the Linux and open-source threat, which in many cases has displaced Microsoft as the assumed heir to the Unix throne. The cooperative programming model, with freely shared intellectual property, flies in the face of Microsoft's proprietary approach, which closely guards source code.

"We've got to figure out the coolness factor a little bit."
--Martin Taylor, Microsoft's
official Linux fighter,
on open-source hipness

Taylor's methods include funding analyst firm studies, launching a "Get the Facts" advertising campaign and discouraging Microsoft executives from making any more inflammatory comments that open-source software is a "cancer" or "un-American." Taylor meets with customers worldwide and has begun expanding the Microsoft attack to Europe.

Taylor said he expects that targeting Linux sellers such as Red Hat and Novell will be persuasive to software customers. However, he said Microsoft recognizes that it will have to use different tactics for capturing the interest of students and programmers, where the philosophical appeal of open-source software can rival pragmatic considerations.

"We've got to figure out the coolness factor a little bit," Taylor said of Microsoft's efforts to build student involvement. So far, Microsoft's response has been to try to shape curriculum and engage student interest with programming contests such as Imagine Cup.

Being "first to cool" is an official corporate priority, along with being first to market and first to make a lot of money, according to a July speech by Chief Executive Steve Ballmer.

Microsoft is also gathering ammunition by working to dispel its own Linux ignorance--for example, by hiring Linux experts such as Bill Hilf, who built eToys' Web site on Linux and promoted Linux for IBM. Hilf joined Microsoft in January, Taylor said.

"Our guys have not had that line of sight. Our developer guys knew a lot about our stuff," but for Linux and open-source expertise, Microsoft's staff had to start from scratch or rely on third-party consultants, he said.

As a result, Microsoft now has a better idea of what Linux has and what Redmond needs for the high-performance computing edition of Windows, Taylor said.

As open-source software projects have grown from hobbies to widely used products, companies such as Red Hat, MySQL and Zend have arrived to support them. Taylor predicted those companies will gradually grow more remote from the free-form open-source programming community as they fulfill commercial requirements such as testing to ensure that updates don't break existing software.

"What we're beginning to see is you can only be 16 for a year, then after that you have to deal with some aging issues," he said.

Microsoft's campaign has argued that the total cost of ownership (TCO) and security of Microsoft products beats out Linux. Taylor said that Microsoft probably has made more headway with customers on the first of the two subjects.

"It's going to be a while before customers say Microsoft has an advantage for security, probably because of the pain they have felt over the past year," Taylor said. "I feel better about TCO than I do about security."

CNET's Ina Fried contributed to this report.