You know Microsoft is getting nervous about something when it feels the need to talk to people -- and not just to those browsing its internal FTP servers. Not to journalists either, of course: we get talked at a lot, but that's not quite the same. Today, however, in a hotel room in Central London, Microsoft has assembled some of its biggest cheeses and invited a handful of various software and Web-hosting partners to come for a real heart-to-heart. The fromage le plus grande is Jean-Philippe Courtois, president of MS Europe, and there's a fair smattering of the more mature cheddars and stiltons of the UK company. And somewhere behind the curtains, drawn by the heady scent of ripe fumes from the cheeseboard, your very own fly on the wall. It turns out that Microsoft is worried about, well, all sorts of things. Why people were so keen on Unix, what they thought of Microsoft itself, what was going wrong in the great march forward, Should we provide a whole bunch of Linux-like command line utilities, was one question posed to the assembled hewers of code and sellers of Web services. Why do so many people leave university with such a dread dislike of Windows, was another: Microsoft may have last have woken up to the symptoms of its big problems, but it wasn't clear it was prepared to make the full diagnosis. And guess what the peasants from the codeface actually wanted to talk about: support, licensing, product registration, maintainability... the sort of things that everyone's been bashing on about at tedious length forever and a day. People piped up and said they had better support from open-source vendors, and that the new licensing scheme sucked wet farts from dead pigeons. As for Microsoft's popular image as the Borg -- it runs deep, even among the people whose businesses depend most intimately on working with Microsoft at a technical level. "We're amazed to see you here," said one partner. "We expected to find five telephones on a desk, with buttons to press if we wanted to talk to you and a lot of music on hold." Lots of notes were taken: whether this will go any further than various other Microsoft attempts to elicit criticism, we shall see. The cheeses made their excuses and left at this point, leaving the panel with an open tab in the hotel bar, a fancy fleece apiece (much better than they ever give journalists, chiz chiz) and the promise of an Xbox with a couple of games, to be delivered in time for Christmas. But watch out for those command line utilities.