Guy Kewney: Bill is picking up penguins

Microsoft isn't about to launch its own Linux this year. It simply can't

Anybody tells you that Bill Gates is recruiting Linux programmers in order to launch MS Linux on the new Intel Itanium chip in the year 2000, can be safely sent away with a scornful flea in their ear.

Yes, it's true; Redmond is hiring Linux-expert staff -- programmers, marketing types. Yes, it's also true; there will be a bigger market for Linux networks than for NT on Itanium, for some time. Yes, it's possibly also true that Microsoft will, one day, be forced to launch its own version of Linux, and that the people it's recruiting now, will be key players in that move.

It's even possible that the conspiracy theorists are right: that Microsoft hopes to sabotage Linux by producing a huge, MS-style package with enormous executables, requiring multiple parallel Pentium III processors to run -- though I doubt this is done deliberately. Unlikely, to the point of being something I simply don't believe -- but I'll admit it's conceivable.

But Microsoft isn't about to launch its own Linux this year. It simply can't.

To be sure, it won't take as long to launch MSLinux, as it took to launch Windows. For a start, most of what Microsoft would need, is already there, in theory; it just has to pick up a licence like anybody else can. But that's not the problem. The problem with an operating system can be described in one word:

Drivers.

Even small, startup companies like Red Hat and Suse are vulnerable to complaints that "there ought to be a driver for this obscure card I have in my out of date machine." Microsoft, however, simply can't cope with that level of lack of support in the corporate business.

If it is to compete in the Linux market, MS Linux must install, flawlessly, on 98% of installed PCs. It simply can't get away with saying to large customers that "it is up to the maker of that card to write a driver."

The reason it can't, is the nature of the new, corporate-level alliance which Microsoft is hoping will be typical of its business relationships with its customers, now that it is selling Windows 2000 with Active Directory.

If you want to see this in action, go and check the jobs-vacant adverts for a year ago, and count how many Microsoft adverts were placed asking for Novell expertise. And having done that, go and install Windows 2000 RC2 on a workstation on a Novell network. You'll find, I bet, that the experience of marrying up to a Novell server that is looking for 32-bit NetWare clients, is actually easier with Windows 2000, than it is with earlier versions of Windows like Win 98 or Win NT 4.0, even though they used the authentic NetWare client software.

The strategy with Windows 2000 and Active Directory may not work. It isn't yet clear that Microsoft can match the sophistication of Novell Directory Services with Active Directory, and it's pretty clear that NDS is far, far more thoroughly debugged than AD. There are, also, plenty of qualified Novell-trained engineers with several years experience; the list of people qualified to install and maintain Active Directory links to Banyan and to NetWare and to Apple networks, is probably a list you can count on the fingers of one hand.

But one thing is pretty clear, and that is if Microsoft goes into the board-room of a large company, like (say) Natwest Bank, and says "We will take ownership of your network issues" they'd better be able to cope when the chief technology guys says: "Oh, that's good, because we weren't sure how to marry Active Directory up with the Solaris and Linux servers we have scattered about." And at that point, a lofty sneer and "Oh, we don't think we are prepared to support non-standard platforms" will be a quick way of terminating the meeting.

Personally, I think Microsoft Windows will continue to outnumber Linux machines by a huge margin, for another five years at the very least, and probably well after that. I don't see any need for Redmond to panic about Linux itself. It may have to adapt to the user-supported software model, somehow (though I'm not sure I see how) and it may have to support Office and Back Office products on Linux servers and even, perhaps, on Linux workstations.

But it doesn't have the slightest need to launch its own Linux, and there are several good reasons why it wouldn't want to endorse the Linux standard. Not yet....

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