The new face of Microsoft

The debate over open source software has moved on, leaving Microsoft's arguments looking increasingly out-of-touch and irrelevant. Microsoft's new tactics will be much more subtle

The well-publicised antitrust actions in the EU and the US against Microsoft have left a permanent stain on the company's reputation. The result is that nearly every announcement by the company, from a product launch to the hiring of a new executive, is subject to cynical scrutiny — and many would claim justifiable so. After all, this is the company that recently bought off nearly all its major opponents in the EU antitrust trial including its most vociferous adversary the Computer & Communications Industry Association.

Given this background, it is hardly surprising that Microsoft's latest riposte to the ever-growing threat posed by Linux has been taken with a pinch of salt. All previous research sponsored by Microsoft on the relative benefits and costs of Windows versus Linux have suffered a credibility gap precisely because they were funded by Microsoft. Now the company is suggesting a jointly-funded research programme with the Open Source Development Labs in an attempt to create a comparison that can be touted round as truly independent. And who better to be a co-funder? The OSDL is the closest thing the fragmented Linux community has to a parent organisation — its list of employees includes the father of the open source operating system Linus Torvalds.

How exactly this independent research will be carried out is not clear, indeed it is far from certain that the OSDL will actually agree to the plan at all. Statistics are all a question of interpretation and emphasis — given Microsoft's infinite marketing and public relations resource it is quite likely that the company could spin even a report that heavily criticised Windows into a positive endorsement of its operating system.

Yet there may be more to this agreement than first impressions suggest. While outsiders may see this as another battle in the religious war between the de facto champion of proprietary software and the ragged but virtuous massed ranks of the open source community — talks between the generals may have relegated the previous conflict to little more than market posturing. Microsoft has recently begun to take a much more pragmatic approach to open source, realising that fighting the enemy head on, or indeed fighting at all, may actually be counterproductive. Early attempts to dismiss or ride roughshod over the open source competition have proved fruitless. Microsoft has had to accept that Linux and open source software is not going away and it has had to adjust its tactics accordingly. Hence the rash of so-called secret meetings between the company's chief executive Steve Ballmer and open software luminaries such as Red Hat's Matthew Szulik and the OSDL's Steve Cohen.

Microsoft's long term strategy around Linux and open source is evolving. Its current tactics suggest management could well be split between hawks and doves advocating head-on attack and acceptance/assimilation respectively. Whichever side wins out, it is clear that Microsoft is definitely a fan of the old military adage — keep your friends close but your enemies closer.