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Ballmer Confronts Linux Challlenge

The Microsoft CEO argues the case for Windows vs. Linux in an email to customers and partners.

Windows computing environments are cheaper, more secure, and lower risk than those based on Linux and open-source software, CEO Steve Ballmer asserts in an E-mail sent Wednesday to Microsoft's customers and partners.

"It's pretty clear that the facts show that Windows provides a lower total cost of ownership than Linux; the number of security vulnerabilities is lower on Windows, and Windows responsiveness on security is better than Linux; and Microsoft provides uncapped IP indemnification of their products, while no such comprehensive offering is available for Linux or open source," Ballmer writes.

The argument isn't new. Microsoft officials have been systematically making the same case, point by point, for more than a year. About a year ago, the company launched a marketing campaign dubbed "Get The Facts" that made the same claims, supported by analyst reports and customer testimonials. Some of those analyst reports were funded by Microsoft, raising questions about their objectivity, but more recently Microsoft has begun offering unfunded research results in presenting its case.

Ballmer points to several customers that chose Windows over Linux. In one example, Equifax Inc. opted for Windows after its internal analysis concluded the company could save 14% compared with Linux for a marketing-database project.

Ballmer's memo is likely to renew industry debate over how Windows and Linux compare in the critical areas of cost, security, and intellectual-property rights. "It's the world according to Microsoft," says Yankee Group analyst Laura DiDio.

A Yankee Group report is among the data showing Windows to be cheaper than Linux in some situations. But that's the catch, it's only in certain circumstances, such as when a company is already heavily invested in Microsoft software or has internal Windows expertise. In other cases, Linux is soometimes cheaper. "There's no black and white here," says DiDio.

Ballmer cites a Forrester Research study from earlier this year that gauged Windows and Linux costs at 14 companies. Five of those 14 found Windows to be cheaper, but the others didn't have data from which to draw conclusions. "Few companies know what they're really spending," Ballmer writes.

Ballmer also used third-party data to support Microsoft's claim that Windows is more secure than Linux. "No other software platform has invested as much in security R&D, process improvements, and customer education as we have," he writes.

Yet, just two weeks ago, Microsoft issued patches for 21 vulnerabilities in Windows, Exchange, and Office. And adoption of Microsoft's most-secure operating system, Windows XP Service Pack 2, will take between six and 12 months at many companies, by Microsoft's own estimate. That means many Microsoft business customers continue to use older versions of Windows that are more vulnerable to worms, viruses, and other threats.

Also, a growing number of Linux vendors are adding indemnification to protect customers against potential intellectual-property lawsuits. Hewlett-Packard has been offering indemnification for customers that run Linux on HP systems, subject to certain limitations, for about a year. And in January, Novell introduced indemnification coverage for its SuSE Linux.

Microsoft improved its own indemnification policy last year when it removed the dollar cap that limited its own liability in potential suits. Microsoft offers indemnification to business customers that sign volume-license agreements. Writes Ballmer, "We're looking at ways to expand it to an even broader set of our customers."

Analyst DiDio says Microsoft generally offers more comprehensive indemnification to customers than Linux distributors. When it comes to total cost of ownership and security, she adds, a variety of case-specific factors determines whether Windows or Linux outperforms the other. Either way, DiDio says, Microsoft's proposition in both areas is much improved over a year or two ago.

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