Dear Steve: Time for Microsoft Linux?

comment Here's my suggestion for how Microsoft should deal with Linux: Don't beat 'em, join 'em.

commentary Dear Steve Ballmer:

Concerning Linux and your memo/exhortation of June 4, I'm pleased to see you've finally recognized--publicly, at least--the threat posed to Microsoft by Linux.

Some in the Linux community must imagine you with a sort of "deer in the headlights" look, not quite sure of your fate but certain it can't be good. They could see your memo as a legitimization of Linux, an admission by Goliath that David has a point after all. The Linux hardcore must be hooting and hollering and marking June 4 as a future national day of liberation from the evil empire.

I think they have it backwards. I think Linux proponents are the ones who should be afraid.

Why? Because Microsoft has been in this situation before and, once the battleship was turned, fought and won. Your company also ended up being declared a monopoly, making a deal with the feds, and spending large millions on legal fees. But what's that to Microsoft's multibillion-dollar war chest?

You remember the fall of 1995? Back then, people thought Microsoft was hopelessly late in acknowledging the existence of something called the Internet. Competitors were popping up, the industry was abuzz, and Microsoft was nowhere to be found.

As I remember, Microsoft had some important projects to finish the previous summer, in particular a little something called Windows 95. But by December, once that had shipped and people had a chance to rest and regroup, Bill invited the media up to Microsoft for a talk about the Internet.

That turned out to be one of the most fateful days in personal computing history. Bill told several hundred reporters that Microsoft wouldn't be building Internet products. Instead, it would be putting the Internet into all Microsoft products. Every future Microsoft product would have Internet capabilities built-in.

Embrace, extend
Now, I'm not sure your June 4 memo is the same war cry I heard nearly eight years ago. But if I were Linux and faced with the prospect of Microsoft throwing everything it could at me, I'd find some way to get out of your path.

Here's my suggestion for how Microsoft should deal with Linux: Don't beat 'em, join 'em.

Do a release of MS Linux. Create Office for Linux. Improve Linux support in your development tools. Do such a good job of embracing and extending Linux that the world won't care when you essentially annex it for your own. A more cynical person than myself might add: Then you can kill it. I won't, because I believe Linux deserves to live.

I think this is the only way Microsoft can both give its customers what they want and manage the threat Linux poses on something approaching your own terms.

The first question people will immediately ask is: How can Microsoft participate in an open operating system? Two ways: First, by making it as robust an OS as possible. Second, by creating a collection of services and applications that run atop Linux that only Microsoft controls.

The goal here is to shift the competition away from commodity operating systems running on commodity computers. Instead, you should compete on services that sit atop the OS, tools to build applications for it, and integration between the OS and other servers and desktops in the Microsoft world.

The second inevitable question: What about Linux on the desktop? While Apple has proven with OS X that a really great desktop can be built atop Unix, I'm not sure how far Microsoft wants to go down this road. There should probably be an Office for MS Linux, because some people will want to run Office on Linux desktops. But I'd probably stop there.

Just another kingdom to conquer
By adopting Linux as its own, Microsoft can respond to what I see as its chief attraction: It's a free operating system for inexpensive servers. Yes, I know there is more to it than that. But a free Microsoft OS that supports other Microsoft technologies would seem to be attractive. And if what we are really doing is raising the level of competition, it might make sense to build middleware and apps for other Linux releases as well.

Would Microsoft find itself competing with other vendor's Linux software? Absolutely. But has that stopped Microsoft before? Think of Linux as just another world in need of Microsoft domination and you'll be fine.

More broadly, perhaps it is time to offer customers a choice of underlying technologies, as Sun seems to be doing by offering the same stack of middleware for both Solaris and Linux running on Intel-based hardware.

Linux (and Unix more generally) could also solve some of Microsoft's security problems and give customers a less expensive and more "open" (whatever that really means) alternative to MS operating systems, while remaining within the Microsoft fold. You could position Linux as the solution for less critical applications, while targeting proprietary MS operating systems at higher performance apps.

I can't possibly get into all the issues surrounding a Microsoft-branded Linux here--I can think of a zillion complications. But it's an idea I'd like to see you explore. I have no doubt that if Microsoft decided to participate in the Linux market, the world would be a different place. After all, I've seen what you did with the Internet.

Late to the party isn't the same as missing it.

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