Microsoft stands firm in the 'great Linux debate'

The software giant ventured into hostile territory on Wednesday to argue its case during a live debate over the future of the Linux desktop

HP, Red Hat, Novell and Sun talking about open-source and Linux at this year's LinuxExpo -- that's not news. But Microsoft joining in -- now that's news.

Microsoft UK's national systems engineer Bradley Tipp braved the Linux zealots to argue Redmond's corner at the London event. Questions from the audience ranged from "why is it so difficult to buy a laptop that's not preloaded with Windows?" to the wider implications of open-source software for the technology industry as a whole.

ZDNet UK was on hand to record all the action and ponder whether Microsoft's man would get out of the room alive after attacking the Linux General Public License (GPL) and admitting to some suspect past behaviour.
Question: Is there real competition on the desktop yet?
Samba/HP: If you're an enterprise user and you are not at least piloting Linux on the desktop then you're paying too much for your Microsoft software.

Novell: If the question is, "is there serious competition on the desktop today?" then the answer is no. Three or four years ago, if you'd asked if there was competition on the server, then the answer would be no. But today 22 per cent of the server market is Linux, tomorrow that number is going to sky-rocket up. Today, the Linux desktop is very good but three years from now I think you'll begin to see those kinds of numbers. And I think it's only as Linux desktop proceeds that we will see Microsoft innovate. Give a year, give two years and we will see frantic competition on the desktop.

Red Hat: There are definitely some elements lacking that we need to invest in. So, if we talk about the consumer market then we have Microsoft with a very mature product that everyone understands and Linux is not quite there yet. But the only way we tackle that is through investment. It won't happen as an on/off switch – suddenly it's arrived – no I think we are going to see an ever increasing use of the desktop.

Microsoft: I agree with what most of the guys had to say. There certainly is competition. I think Microsoft does its best work when there is innovation -- so bring it on is basically what I say.

Sun: My view is that you have to look at what the outcomes are. What could we expect if competition was happening? If your idea of the outcome of competition is complete displacement of what there was before then that isn't going to happen. What we are going to see is increase in choice, increase in competition and related increase in innovation. I think there is competition and the outcome of it will be positive.

Question: It's extremely difficult to buy a bare machine – particularly a laptop -- without the Microsoft OS on it. What have Microsoft, IBM and HP to say about that?
Samba/HP: I think HP recently announced that they would sell laptops with Linux on there. In the US, you can definitely buy laptops and desktops with Linux installed. But I understand where you are coming from, as the first thing I had to do when I got my internal HP laptop was to basically reformat the disc without booting Windows. It is finally beginning to change. There should have been a Government solution to enforce, that you should be able to buy a laptop and return the software for a refund. I think it's a scandal that you can't do that.

IBM: At the moment we certify Linux on our ThinkPads. I think as the market develops, it is going to be interesting to see how this plays out and if it's similar to the way it has played out in servers.

Microsoft: I think there is a couple of really interesting things to come out of this. Firstly is, we don't sell laptops so what these companies choose to do with their products is up to them. Despite what you may think, there is no restriction in the licensing terms with either of these companies that says they can't provide naked machines -- they can absolutely do that. If you look at the DOJ agreement from some time ago now, one of things we are restricted from doing by law is putting in clauses that would do that sort of thing. It may have happened in the past, it certainly doesn't happen anymore. So don't blame us.

Secondly and a lot more interesting is commercial reality and there are two things that come up here. When the gentleman asks for a desktop running Linux -- what flavour of Linux do you want? And one of the problems the manufacturers face at the moment is what flavour are they going to provide for you? And if it's ten different flavours, then that's ten different pieces of engineering certification they have to go through and that is ten lots of cost. If the market is out there to support that cost then they will absolutely do it. If the market is not out there then they won't. So what you actually see is commercial reality and unless people overturn that in some way then things aren't going to change.

Samba/HP: I was an expert witness in the EU case and one of the pieces of evidence submitted was one of those agreements you say didn't exist.

Microsoft: I said those agreements may have existed but they don't exist any more.

Sun: You may have seen announcements from the US that WalMart are actually selling PCs preloaded with the Linux desktop so I think that is quite good news. So there are alternatives.

Question: What effect has open-source and free software had on the technology industry in general?
Novell: Initially there was a lot of hand-ringing from everyone including my company: the sky is falling, open-source is going to kill us. The new reality is that it doesn't, it just requires you to play the game differently. Great software will continue to be written in a proprietary fashion, great software will continue to be written in an open source fashion. Some companies like Red Hat will choose to go the pure open-source route and some companies like mine will choose a hybrid model. I think there is room for all sorts of models. It will have a net benefit on the software industry.

Red Hat: We do think of open-source software as a disruptive change in how things are done in a very positive way. There was a lot of anxiety about it, who is in charge anyhow? You've got no one to complain about it to, etc, etc. But we now think that open source is a superior development model. You couldn't have Linux evolved by a single company in ten or 11 years time to be where it is today without a remarkable amount of investment but it has been done by this collaborative process.


Samba/HP: Just as you wouldn't trust a bridge built by a company that wouldn't show you the blueprints, you shouldn't trust software from a company that won't show you the source. I worked in proprietary software for a long time before I worked in open source and most proprietary software is crap. It's crap because you can get away with it. You can get away with it because no-one looks inside and sees the buffer overruns. You can't do that with open-source code. My name is on Samba. When we ship a new version of Samba, we don't care about the release train for SuSE or Red Hat --- we ship it when it is right. In the future, it is going to seem incredible that software was done any other way.

Microsoft: I think you have to look at the commercial aspects. If companies operating a pure open-source route can be commercially viable and make money then it becomes a commercial business model. It does have an impact on programmers and developers who chose to make their living writing code.

Also I want to respond to the inference that proprietary software is crap. When you show your software to the number of people that we show our software to, then you don't get to behave like that. There is a misconception that because your code is open and readable that A, people will read it and B, people will recognise good quality and will have good practise in writing code. Actually one of the big challenges for the Linux community and as their product becomes more complex, then how do you put the systems in place to ensure quality? If you look at some of the things that have gone on in terms of the community doing code-review, then the community is not interested -- the community is interested in building stuff for itself. So, I would take issue with that, they have just as many bugs as we have. I would even argue in other circumstances that we have less. We all have bugs in software, so to argue that closed or open is crap is a gratuitously silly thing to say.

Question: There a lot of people on the panel today from different organisations, with different viewpoints. How are you going to work together to make Linux a unified platform?
Samba/HP: The GPL is what keeps everything on a level playing field, it is the ultimate Darwinian system. The GPL is what ties and binds everything together.

Red Hat: We make sure our engineers are deeply involved in the community. They are maintainers, they are contributors -- 100 percent of what they write gets contributed back -- they are involved with the process and create elements of software that will go in the right direction and are in line with where maintainers are taking code.

Microsoft: Linux is not about to go away tomorrow, we know that, so how is Microsoft and Linux going to co-exist? The answer to that is they already have and you just need an abstraction layer to let that happen and that abstraction layer is Web services. We did a test 18 months ago with some senior people from Microsoft and some from IBM and we had SQL running on Windows and DB2 running on Linux and they were talking to each other via Web services.

The slight fly in the ointment is that while these guys think that the GPL is great, the thing that the GPL makes difficult is R&D. If I invest a lot of money in a new file system and then it is GPLed, then everyone else gets the benefit of that. As an organisation you might get a parasitic organisation that just decides it's going to keep taking that. It puts together just as good an application and services on top of that but doesn't contribute to the community. And that's one of the big problems with the GPL, if you want good R&D then you have to pay for it.

Novell: So that's true and then it isn't, right? Everyone is parasitic on each other. If you assume that the OS is a commodity or should be, it should be free, it should be open, no one should make money off of it, except in supporting it, then that money that you put into code, that you are just going to give away, is a fraction of what you would normally do as everyone else is doing the same thing. People have to start innovating up the stack. If they want to price their intellectual property they have to do it further up the stack which is good for customers. Customers get those better applications rather then everyone spending that R&D budget on something that should be free.

Microsoft: You still haven't answered the question. What open source can't do, that a commercial company can do is to turn around and say we are going to take six or eight million and invest it in research.

Novell: No, we are going to continue to invest in free-stuff but we will also invest in collaboration software up the stack.

Red Hat: We are profitable which we think is responsible as a business. We take that money and we reinvest it. We are investing in new technology. The bottom line is that we are a company that internally has defined its values. We value freedom, we value the choice we give to the community. Those are fundamental values. If we changed our values tomorrow, half our engineers would quit out of principal and that's great-- what a great company to work for. We don't look at this as a give and take -- let's expunge the word parasite.

Microsoft: But you're a commercial company?

Red Hat: And we make money because people find our service and support superior and if they choose to go elsewhere, then we'll work harder.

Microsoft -- Bradley Tipp, national systems engineer

HP/Samba -- Jeremy Allison.

Red Hat -- Paul Salazar, director of European marketing

Sun Microsystems -- Robin Wilton, EMEA programme manager -- Java Desktop System.

Novell -- Matt Asay, director, Linux Business Office, Novell