"Linux is a serious competitor," said Ballmer. "We have to compete with free software, on value, but in a smart way. We cannot price at zero, so we need to justify our posture and pricing. Linux isn't going to go away--our job is to provide a better product in the marketplace."
He acknowledged there was more to Linux than free software--the main benefit of the open-source movement was the community developing software and sharing ideas. "Linux is not about free software, it is about community," he said. "It's not like Novell, it isn't going to run out of money--it started off bankrupt, in a way."
Technology like clustering would be better in Windows than Linux eventually, said Ballmer: "We will beat Linux on clusters. We can't beat them on price, but we have to add value."
The MVP initiative will be a big part of Microsoft's efforts to promote a sense of "community" among users and developers, connecting its own product developers with the users most in touch with product issues.
Microsoft is considering extending its shared-source initiative, currently limited to large users such as governments and universities, to MVPs. This would give them smart-card access to much of the Windows source code, he said. There will be a decision on this in the next couple of months, said Lori Moore, vice president of product support services at Microsoft. "There are many options on the table," she said. "There are many ways to be more open, and we are reviewing ideas."
For nine years, the company has designated users with particular skills--usually seen by how often they intervene helpfully in newsgroups--as "most valued professionals". Currently there are about 1,200 MVPs, half of whom are in the United States.
The title is highly regarded, said Thomas Lee, a Windows 2000 MVP who specializes in directory issues, and has just been appointed as chief technologist at QA Training. "You are recognized by your peers, not by an exam that you can cheat in." Linux and its community have a symbiotic relationship, he said: "You don't have that same thing at Microsoft, but there are people who are passionate and technical who are committed to doing a great job."
While Ballmer stopped short of advocating Microsoft's old "security through obscurity" policy, he pointed out that publicly posting bug fixes often prompted attacks. "The hacker waits till a fix is posted, then writes an attack and sends it out," he said. Such attacks are based on information in the fix. The answer is to make sure that fixes are easier to distribute an implement so the user base is up to date, he said.
Asked by one lateral-thinking MVP whether Microsoft planned to offer applications software on Linux, Ballmer said no. "We do not anticipate offering software on Linux. Nobody pays for software on Linux." Even StarOffice, sold by Sun, was originally a free product, he said. And IBM, arguably the No. 1 player in the Linux market, promotes Linux to big users, but does not actually sell Linux: "It's weird! IBM says 'Hey British Aerospace! Buy Linux.... From SuSE."
The big issue there, he said, was a reluctance to accept legal liability for open-source software.