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Ballmer's Linux Spin

Microsoft's CEO argues that Windows is cheaper and more secure than its open-source rival. Do the facts support him?

Ballmer emphasized the independent nature of the data Microsoft gathered. Perhaps that was to head off questions about the objectivity of the reports bolstering his position. Microsoft occasionally has paid fees to firms such as Meta Group and BearingPoint to commission reports documenting Windows' advantages, and it has even reviewed some reports prior to publication. Even when it doesn't commission reports, Microsoft sometimes pays licensing fees to redistribute unsponsored analysis it deems favorable.

How did Ballmer's spiel play among business-technology executives? Scott Bess, IT director with Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana, thinks Ballmer got it right but says, "Ours is a little more practical stance." The nonprofit organization uses Microsoft software to support operations that span 27 retail locations, two schools, and a manufacturing plant. Its IT staff dabbles with Linux but has no plans to switch platforms. Bess says he doesn't believe Linux would be cheaper or more secure than the Windows infrastructure now in place. Besides, he doesn't want to focus resources on operating systems, he says. "I want to support the applications we write. To us, that adds better value to the business."

Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corp. has been using Linux and Apache for five years. The apparel company uses Windows sparingly, mostly on certain retail systems. CIO Mike Prince says he hasn't seen any evidence that Windows is more secure than Linux. "I don't think we've ever had a virus on Linux, and those systems will run for six months without needing to be rebooted," he says.

IT shops that are predisposed to running Windows, and that have invested in it, are less likely to see cost benefits from migrating to Linux, Prince admits. "But on a clean playing field, I can't see how Linux would be more expensive than Windows," he says.

The executive behind Microsoft's anti-Linux strategy, general manager Martin Taylor, says Microsoft understands its open-source competitor better than it did a year ago. And that knowledge doesn't just come from hard competition out in the marketplace. Microsoft is getting hands-on experience by running major Linux distributions and other open-source software in a computer lab on its Redmond, Wash., campus. Says Taylor, "I feel we've got great line of sight to where we know we can win."

--With Larry Greenemeier

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