Microsoft Does Linux

I had to check the date on the article when I saw the announcement that Microsoft was going to provide some level of support for Linux. However, this is not an April Fool’s Day joke; it’s the real thing and has serious implications.

In order to understand the impact, one has to understand how Microsoft used to work. In the past, Microsoft was all about protecting two key platforms: Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office. As both tools represent the bread makers of the company, ensuring strong revenue while they try to go after markets, the Redmond giant was loath to do anything that could potentially help competitors in any way. As a result, they closely protected their own ecosystem and worked hard on spreading a message that essentially said that using other operating system was bad for your business.

With this announcement, we may see a new Microsoft: one that is open to the realities of the marketplace. Linux is not going away and Microsoft knows it so, instead of trying to fight it head on, the company has decided to take its embrace and extend attitude and wrap its arms around the operating system.

This is both a blessing and a potential threat to Linux vendors. Computing history shows that when Microsoft embraces a competitor, that competitor may need to start rethinking its strategy.

The first step, beyond announcing support for Linux, is creating a team focused on Linux. From their announcement:

Microsoft is committed to providing a positive customer experience when running supported Linux operating systems as guests in Virtual Server 2005 R2. Therefore, the product support model for these configurations will be consistent with existing customer support for Virtual Server products. Customers who report interoperability issues with Linux guests or virtual machine add-ins will be routed to a team that is specially trained to troubleshoot issues related to Linux guests within Virtual Server 2005 R2.

What we are seeing here is nothing short of a major revolution at Microsoft. By having some people fully dedicated to supporting Linux, the company will gain a deep competitive knowledge of what works and what doesn’t with Linux servers.

As a result of that acknowledgment, Windows is now going to evolve to better counter the threat of Linux. While Redmond was large in denial as to the power of Linux, the message is now that they are taking it heads on, using code instead of rhetoric to fight it.

Linux fans may be rejoicing at the news but I would take a more careful approach and say beware. In 1997, Microsoft carefully embraced Java. What followed was the quick death of Java as a front end technology, forcing Sun to reposition it as a back-end coding technology. While Java has thrived, Sun was forced to reposition it in order to make it thrive. Few Windows programmers switched to Java and Microsoft managed to protect its own investment in Visual Basic, building a lot of Java-like functionality in its development tools and then introducing tools that could stay competitive while integrating with Windows, thus protecting the Microsoft ecosystem.

The question that Linux developers will have to ask themselves is where the benefits of this Microsoft embrace lie. While it may look like a capitulation, it may just be a strategic shift in their offensive. By gaining a deeper understanding of the value of Linux (and, if you look at the versions of Linux they are supporting, price is not really the competitive threat they are trying to counter but features seem to be as all the supported products are paid ones) and building it in their future offerings.

It’s going to be interesting to see how this relationship evolves. I see two potentially different scenarios coming out of this:

  • Microsoft increases its embrace of Linux and is genuinely interested in being more open, thus allowing them to sell products that work in a more mixed environment, which would help them get into areas in which they are weak, thus increasing potential sell of the new “good citizen” Windows version. This could stem from Microsoft’s realization that their biggest competitive threat is not coming from the outside but from the inside: existing versions of Windows may be good enough for most people so, to ensure upgrades to future version, Microsoft needs to evolve the market to an area where they play well with others.
  • The other, darker, scenario, would be one where Microsoft embraces and extends Linux in the future. It would first discover what makes Linux a better sell than Windows and incorporate Linux-like functionality in their OS, thus reducing the potential threat. Once it matches features, the company would then present all the advantages of Windows in terms of installed base and use that as leverage to impede the growth of Linux.

I don’t yet know which of these scenarios the company will follow but it will be interesting to see how this develops. I hope that the first one, with Microsoft being genuine in its acknowledgment of new realities and becoming more open, is what they are shooting for but past history has told another story. Only time will tell whether they can truly move forward and become a more open company and if that happens, this moment will be seen as a historical shift not only in Microsoft history but in computing history as a whole.

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