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Microsoft learns from enemy Linux

The software titan has spent a lot of time attacking Linux recently, but has learned and benefited from its rival's operating system.

SAN FRANCISCO--Microsoft has spent a lot of time attacking Linux recently, but the company has learned and benefited from the rival operating system.

Linux's success in low-end servers led the company to revise its server product line, said Doug Miller, director of competitive strategy for Microsoft's Windows division. And Microsoft learned that it needs better interactions with the programmers who use Microsoft products.

"Any competing technology is good for the industry. It causes us to evaluate our own offerings," he said in an interview at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo. "Linux has been a catalyst for doing that at Microsoft."

Future versions of Microsoft's server operating system, formerly code-named Whistler server, then Windows 2002, and now called Windows .Net Server, will include not only the Server, Advanced Server and Datacenter versions of Windows 2000, but also a stripped-down version that costs less for use on Web servers, Miller said.

Web servers--the computers used to house Web sites and send pages to Web browsers--is one of the areas where Linux has proved successful, along with and some network services such as linking Internet addresses with server names, Miller said.

"Most of the interest (in Linux) has been in the business model and the community development. We're learning from that to see what would work in the Microsoft world," he said.

While Linux may have influenced Microsoft, there are some things the Redmond, Wash., company is unwilling to change--such as releasing control over its operating system to others, the hallmark of open-source methods.

"We don't want to introduce a perpetual unpredictability by allowing massive changes to the underlying system," he said. However, the company is allowing some business partners to see and modify Windows CE source code.

Linux is chaotic, he said. "It is kind of random. There are these different efforts that are thrown together," Miller said. One consequence of having so little planning across so many components of Linux is that "there is no centralized concept of how to manage each module," he said.

But decentralization isn't a bad thing, Linux leader Linus Torvalds said in a panel discussion Wednesday. With so many individuals in the open-source movement working on what they're interested in, the result is a more evolutionary progress similar to that which has produced complex systems such as the human brain, he said.

"I tried to be a manager for a few months for the company I work for. Quite frankly it was a disaster. I cannot organize a project for my life," Torvalds said. "The fact that Linux worked despite that shows that organization is way, way overrated."

For all their differences, though, Linux is grappling with many of the same issues that Windows has faced, Miller said. For example, it has taken Microsoft years to achieve effective use of all the CPUs in multiprocessor servers.

And winning over corporate customers won't be any easier for Linux than for Microsoft. "It's take us years to get to the point of having enterprise credibility," Miller said.

Microsoft is working on measures that would make it harder for people to copy its software, but Miller believes these anti-piracy measures won't hurt the company's market position.

"We feel the price we charge for our software is a very worthwhile return on investment for our customers," Miller said. "People buy an operating system to solve a problem. If it can't solve it with Linux, even if it's free, it's of no value to them."

But Microsoft's fees already are taking a toll and giving more power to Linux, and not just in third-world countries that lack deep budgets, said Giga Information Group analyst Stacey Quandt.

"I think end users are seeing Linux as an answer to the lock-in to Microsoft," she said. "The pain point has already been reached."