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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?

Which operating system, Linux or Windows, is cheaper, more secure, and lower risk? Countless hours have been spent debating the question, and last week, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer sparked the argument again. In a letter E-mailed to customers, Ballmer contended that a growing body of data proves that Windows beats its open-source competitor on all three fronts.

"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," Ballmer wrote. "And Microsoft provides uncapped IP [intellectual-property] indem- nification of their products, while no such comprehensive offering is available for Linux or open source." (For more on Microsoft's intellectual-property and indemnification strategy, see story, Microsoft Deepens Indemnity)

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer sent customers an E-mail saying Windows has a lower TCO and is more secure than Linux. Photo by Charles W. Luzier/Reuters/Landov

Microsoft CEO Ballmer sent customers an E-mail saying Windows has a lower TCO and is more secure than Linux.

Photo by Charles W. Luzier/Reuters/Landov
Ballmer also touted Windows' strengths as a platform for companies migrating enterprise-resource-planning applications from Unix systems, and he highlighted a handful of companies, Equifax Inc. among them, that have opted for Windows over Linux. The position paper comes with Windows Server 2003 sales continuing to rise at a healthy rate but with Linux growing even faster. Ballmer would like to change some minds.

Ballmer's Windows-beats-Linux missive--only his second E-mail to customers this year--is a predictably one-sided argument even to analysts whose research is used to bolster his point of view. "It's the world according to Microsoft," says Yankee Group analyst Laura DiDio, author of a report cited by Ballmer that compares the costs of Windows, Linux, and Unix.

The truth is likely somewhere in the middle, with Windows outperforming in some scenarios and Linux in others. One of the Yankee Group case studies involves a New York law firm that estimated the cost of switching from Windows to Linux would be more than three times higher than sticking with Windows, driven by the expense of reprogramming applications and administering a new software environment. Yet, the IT research and advisory firm also found that Linux offers "compelling cost savings" for some other companies.

Ballmer may have invited the sharpest reaction for his bold assertions about Windows' security advantages. Only two weeks earlier Microsoft issued patches for an eye-popping 21 vulnerabilities in Windows, Exchange, and Office. "The reality is that the financial impact to the economy and to customers of the malicious attacks on Microsoft products has run into the billions," competitor Novell wrote in a point-by-point rebuttal to Ballmer's correspondence.

A March report by Forrester Research found that Microsoft issued patches more quickly than Linux distributors once a software vulnerability was publicly disclosed, and Microsoft had fewer flaws to fix than Linux versions. On the other hand, Microsoft had the greatest percentage of vulnerabilities ranked "high severity," a point that Ballmer ignored. And Forrester's data is more than a year old.

It's easy enough to find similar soft spots in Microsoft's "Get The Facts" marketing campaign, from which Ballmer drew much of his ammo. A Microsoft-sponsored study by BearingPoint, for example, found licensing and support costs of Windows Server 2003 only to be "comparable" to Novell's SuSE Linux 8 and Red Hat Inc.'s Enterprise Linux 3, with Windows being less expensive only in some cases.

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