Microsoft: Linux is a threat to NT (1998)
San Francisco (November 2, 1998) -- What does Microsoft really think of Linux? The software giant has been noticeably quiet about the operating system some pundits call a threat to Windows NT. But as a leaked internal Microsoft document shows, the Redmond, WA company clearly has Linux in its sights.
Yesterday, open source advocate Eric Raymond posted what he claims is an internal Microsoft whitepaper analyzing the strategic impact on Microsoft of open source software and the Linux operating system.
According to the 40-page memo, dubbed "the Halloween Document" by Raymond, "open source software poses a direct, short-term revenue and platform threat to [Microsoft] -- particularly in server space. Additionally, the intrinsic parallelism and free idea exchange in open source software has benefits that are not replicable with our [Microsoft's] current licensing model and therefore present a long term developer mindshare threat." Linux, the document says, presents a short- to medium-term threat to Microsoft's NT server business, but is unlikely to challenge on the desktop.
The whitepaper "provides us with a very valuable look past Microsoft's dismissive marketing spin about open source at what the company is actually thinking," notes Raymond on his Web site.
Microsoft Enterprise Marketing Group Manager Ed Muth has confirmed that the document on Raymond's site is, in fact, the work of Microsoft engineer Vinod Valloppillil.
Analyses like this are "not intended for outside" readers, says Muth, and certainly not officially representative of Microsoft policy. He says that the fact the memo has been leaked is "not exactly concerning."
In addition to Linux, the whitepaper analyzes other open source development projects -- namely Apache and Mozilla -- and suggests what it calls a "superficial list of options" for Microsoft to consider as a response to the open source threat.
This list of options includes the suggestion that Microsoft release low-cost Linux development tools, release its own additions to the open source code base, extend popular open protocols (DNS for example), and generally change its development processes to benefit from the open source development model. "Different reviewers of this paper," it notes, "have consistently pointed out that internally, we should view Microsoft as an idealized open source software community but, for various reasons do not."
Not the first
Though Microsoft has not said much officially about open source software, the Halloween Document is not the first to mention it. Last month, the general director of Microsoft France published an open letter in the Montreal, Canada-based trade magazine Multimedium criticizing the Linux operating system.
Other recent mentions of Linux include a statement, in Microsoft's annual Securities and Exchange Commission filing, that it anticipates more competition from other operating systems, and a comment citing Linux's presence in Microsoft's formal defense in the Department of Justice suit.
"Over the past year the Linux operating system has gained increasing acceptance, and leading software developers such as Oracle and Corel have announced that they will develop applications that run on Linux," said Microsoft in its annual filing for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 1998.
Industry analysts say the fear that Microsoft may be readying an all-out war on Linux may be premature.
"There are enough Unix or variants of Unix out and about that I don't think that Microsoft pays too much attention to Linux yet," says Bill Peterson, an analyst with IDC, a Framingham, MA market research firm. "Some of the announcements earlier in the year, Sybase, Informix, Oracle, (and others) are server-side applications, so at some point, conceiveably an organization could say 'No, we're going to install Oracle on Linux and not Windows NT.' If Linux gets some wins, by that I mean organizations that pick Linux over NT for enterprise-level application deployment, that's when it's going to get Microsoft's attention."
The official line from Microsoft's Windows 2000 (formerly Windows NT) group is that it welcomes competition. "Overall, we welcome more players," says Karan Khanna, lead product manager for Windows 2000. "Our customers benefit and [it] gives our team something to shoot for. We think ours will improve faster and better, but we think Linux is a viable choice."
An open letter
However, like the Halloween Document, the open letter from incoming Microsoft France General Director Marc Chardon to his customers this month was less welcoming. It criticized the rival operating system, saying that it is less stable, shows the lack of a single head, has not been upgraded in two years, is difficult to install and administer, and lacks applications. Chardon concluded, "Linux thus will remain probably a long time still a good subject of study for data processing specialists, rather than a system dedicated to a significant distribution."
Members of the Linux community aren't buying that conclusion. "If it's not a threat, why have the letter?" asks Ian Nandhra, president of NC Laboratories Inc., a Stockton, CA independent software vendor. "[The letter is] surprising, because hardly a few months ago, Linux was absent from the radarscopes of Microsoft," said a response letter, written by Stefane Fermigier, for the AFUL, the French-speaking association for Linux usage.
And Microsoft's engineers appear to dispute Chardon's characterization. According to the whitepaper leaked to Raymond, "Linux is a real, credible OS [plus] development process."
According to Bernard Lang, AFUL's secretary, Chardon was writing in response to a wave of negative publicity about Microsoft's technology and business practices in the French computer trade press. In particular, says Lang, the letter was written to counter allegations made in Dominique Nora and Roberto di Cosmo's recently released book, Le hold-up planetaire (The Global hold-up), one quarter of which covered open source software and non-Microsoft operating systems.
A shot across the bow?
Nandhra says he believes the Chardon letter may be the first shot over Linux's bow in an attempt to both sink the operating system and cast doubts on all open source software. He said he believes Microsoft first issued the statement in French to test its arguments before going to areas where Linux has gained a stronger foothold.
Some industry analysts believe Microsoft's recent acknowledgement of Linux -- including the Chardon letter -- isn't due to competitive pressure. Having a competitor to point to and attack makes Microsoft's case that it is not a monopoly more credible says Rob Enderle, director of desktop and mobile technology for Giga Information Group, a Cambridge, MA research firm. "The fact of the matter is that Linux isn't much of a challenge," he says. "It's an ideal competitor because it's got a large vocal following, but it doesn't compete in the areas where Microsoft is strongest. It's a much better platform for somebody that wants to know about programming, but it's a real problem for an IT organization that doesn't."
Because Linux's strength is its flexibility and extensibility, it doesn't really compete in organizations that want to plug in standard applications without custom programming, observes Enderle.
"Microsoft would like everyone to be considered a threat to them because it helps them in their lawsuit," said Brian Strachman, a research analyst for Cahners In-Stat Group's Telephony Service in Scottsdale, AZ. Strachman said he could not comment on how real a threat Linux is to Windows 2000 in the overall market, but said that both operating systems will begin making inroads for telecommunications applications next year.
With the exception of the Windows Media Player -- ported in beta version to Linux last month -- Microsoft seems to have no plans to support Linux with any of its applications.
Microsoft's Khanna says his company will not make BackOffice and Outlook server applications for any operating systems other than its own. He would not comment on whether the company planned to develop client applications such as the Office desktop suite for Linux.
To date Microsoft has expressed no interest in porting its current Unix client applications -- Internet Explorer, and Outlook Express -- to Linux.