Evaluating 'the Linux factor'

Just how scared is Microsoft of Linux? I don't know what to think anymore.

Back in September last year, I wrote a column claiming that Microsoft was not really afraid of Linux. But once Linux activist Eric Raymond unearthed the now-infamous Halloween memos, which outlined Microsoft's early thoughts on Microsoft's Linux counter-strategy, I changed my mind.

But as of late I'm wavering yet again, primarily because Microsoft is claiming just a bit too loudly as part of its Department of Justice antitrust defense that it considers Linux poised to crush Windows.

It makes me more than a little suspicious that Microsoft group vice president Paul Maritz, during his recent appearance in court, spent so much time focusing on Linux market share and applications availability. Maritz told the judge that Microsoft is hustling to defend itself not only against Linux on the server and desktop, but also against a host of open-source application products, ranging from sendmail to StarOffice. Maritz claimed that, contrary to popular opinion, Linux isn't very hard to install or use; in fact, his college-age son downloaded Red Hat Linux in 30 minutes, he said.

It also makes me a little queasy that some Linux and open-source vendors, resellers and customers have become wary of touting Linux's latest wins because they claim to be afraid that Microsoft will find a way to use these success stories against them in court. This isn't as crazy as it sounds. Look at the list of recent trial exhibits from Microsoft. More than a few of these are articles by the trade and general press about the growth of Linux and tales from its most recent converts. Microsoft entered these into the court record in order to attempt to show that Windows is not a monopoly because Linux is successful.

Is it a coincidence that a source told me this week that Microsoft has assembled a crack team of about 20 people to "evaluate Linux"? Normally, I wouldn't question the timing of a tip. But these days, I'm not taking anything about Linux for granted.

Don't get me wrong. I acknowledge that Linux has, almost overnight, shot to the top of the popularity charts -- as fast, if not faster, than did Java. Linux has undeniable appeal among the Anyone-But-Microsoft movement stalwarts, as well as with corporate consumers who like being on the bleeding edge. But, like some of the members of the Microsoft opposition who have started raising red flags, I want to maintain some perspective here.

I don't think the Computer & Communications Industry Association president Ed Black was far off the mark this week, when he quipped that "Saying that Linux is a competitive threat to Microsoft Windows is like saying that Cuba is capable of overpowering the U.S. Microsoft's insistence that small-time, alternative operating systems like Linux are an immediate threat to its multi-billion dollar core business is a bogus smoke-and-mirrors defense."

And University of Utah professor Lee Hollaar made an interesting point at a ProComp-sponsored breakfast this week, when he asked, "If Microsoft really believed Linux would knock them off their perch, why wouldn't they be rushing to move their applications to Linux? They'd have the advantage of being first to market that way."

Hollaar says Microsoft's Linux defense "doesn't pass the smell test." I agree. There's something fishy going on here. How much of a threat does Linux really pose to Windows? Is Microsoft truly worried? Should it be?