Microsoft picks new fight with Linux, IBM

The software giant is moving to a new phase in its competitive attack, arguing that the company is better than IBM and Linux when it comes to connecting different applications.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
Microsoft is moving to a new phase in its competitive attack, arguing that the company is better than IBM and Linux when it comes to connecting different applications.

The Redmond, Wash.-based software colossus had been contending, through a series of

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Microsoft-funded studies and "Get the Facts" advertisements, that Microsoft products have a lower "total cost of ownership" than Linux and other open-source software. Now Microsoft is trying to move the debate to the challenge of interoperability.

Where the first target of the Get the Facts attack was Linux, the interoperability phase also puts IBM in the crosshairs.

In an interview Tuesday, Martin Taylor, Microsoft's general manager for platform strategies, said he was happy to see Microsoft ahead of IBM among information technology buyers in a Jupiter Research study funded by Microsoft.

"It clearly indicates Microsoft is doing better than perceived in the marketplace," Jupiter analyst Michael Gartenberg said.

Taylor said Microsoft has moved its focus from total cost of ownership to interoperability. The next phase will be reliability, with security an ongoing subject, he said, adding that the priorities are based on customer queries.

Interoperability is indeed a serious issue as technology such as the Internet, Web services and XML (Extensible Markup Language) becomes embedded into business transactions.

Major computing companies are moving toward a future in which many different software applications interact, sending flurries of XML messages over the network. For example, one retailer may rely on another company to process credit card purchases, or a corporation might constantly update inventory and shipment information from suppliers and distributors.

Taylor has spearheaded a series of studies that take a more "pragmatic" approach to criticizing competitors. The previous strategy--deriding Linux's open-source programming philosophy as "Pac-Man-like" or a cancer--backfired.

The Microsoft-funded studies have proved controversial. After Microsoft touted a Forrester Research study that found development costs were lower for Windows than for Linux, the analyst firm changed its policy so that a company that funded a study was prohibited from publicizing it.

In the latest study, Jupiter in December surveyed 800 information technology buyers working for U.S. companies with annual revenue of at least $10 million, asking about their opinions on interoperability. In the study, 72 percent viewed Microsoft favorably when it came to interoperability, more than any other company.

Oracle was No. 2, with 68 percent viewing the company's technology favorably in regard to interoperability. IBM was third at 63 percent, followed by Sun Microsystems at 57 percent. Hewlett-Packard and Linux supporters such as Red Hat were tied for fifth place with 55 percent viewing them favorably.

However, Stephen O'Grady of analyst firm RedMonk questioned one aspect of the study--how many surveyed need interoperability. Of those surveyed, only 36 percent have an IT environment with technology from a mix of companies, whereas 37 percent have a Microsoft-only environment.

"I haven't talked to anyone in months who's homogeneous," O'Grady said, meaning customers that use technology from only a single company.

Jupiter stands by its results. "If somebody else took 800 of their own professionals, qualified in the same way, they're going to get pretty much the same results," Gartenberg said. "There are many organizations that consider themselves a fairly homogeneous environment, with a dominant platform they built upon."

Microsoft funded the study, but didn't control the questions asked or other content, Gartenberg said.

IBM criticized the study. "A vendor-financed report based on some questionable criteria adds little to the very important discussion about IT integration," said spokesman Steve Eisenstadt.

And Red Hat spokeswoman Leigh Day defended Linux. "Because Red Hat Enterprise Linux is available across seven platforms, it's easily fit into a heterogeneous environment," she said. Red Hat's Linux, as well as SuSE Linux from Novell, works on Intel Xeon and Itanium processors, Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron, and four proprietary IBM server lines.

The study found that Web services work--pioneered by IBM and Microsoft, but now advocated and standardized by many other companies--tops the list of technologies preferred for linking applications together. Fifty-five percent favored Web services standards, the survey found.

Though much of XML and Web services technology is based on open standards that make interoperability easier, using XML doesn't guarantee openness.

Much of Microsoft's interoperability push has been based on XML, and the software giant is also trying to lock up numerous XML-related technologies. The company has applied for numerous XML-related patents, some of which could be used to lock out competing applications, according to analysts. Or Microsoft could provide royalty-free access to XML-related innovations, as it recently decided to do with the proprietary XML dialect, or schemas, used by its Office 2003 software.

Microsoft isn't interested in interoperating with some Linux technology. Reiterating a point he made at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo in January, Taylor said it's the open-source community's responsibility to make sure Linux can share files properly with Windows systems.

He likened the situation to the mid-1990s, when Microsoft took on the job of reverse-engineering Novell's IPX/SPX communication technology so Windows machines could easily fit into Novell networks.

In any case, the Jupiter study showed that IT buyers were more concerned with getting applications to communicate with each other, not the ease of sharing files or connecting computers with a network.

Microsoft's Get the Facts campaign has had mixed success so far, O'Grady said.

On the one hand, "the tactical success has been impressive, as it appears to have generated a substantial amount of interest and calls to Microsoft on the topic," O'Grady said.

On the other hand, though, "I don't know that the...campaign has had the success in moving the argument to an unemotional level that they think it has," O'Grady said. "If anything, I think it's flared up the debate in some quarters."