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10/16/2003
11:30 PM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
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Business Technology: About Linux: An Open Letter to Microsoft

Dear Microsoft:

I've long admired your warrior spirit, your commitment to winning, and your drive for success. Lots of companies and individuals have enjoyed many of your products and derived significant value from them; your financial success has made many people inside and outside of your company very wealthy; and you have created a global brand that's the envy of marketers around the world. Several years ago, realizing the Internet and the Web were about to make you as relevant as Gray Davis, you executed what could well be the fastest and most dramatic corporate reorientation anyone's ever seen. You should be quite proud of all that.

But today you face a challenge every bit as daunting as the Internet, and how you choose to react to this challenge will have profound and long-range implications for your company and your customers. Your new threat is embodied within Linux and open systems, yet those technologies themselves aren't the gravest danger to your future. That gravest danger is you yourself.

A few years back, lots of people were saying that the greatest threat to Microsoft was the U.S. Justice Department. I never believed that for a second; back then, I always thought your worst nightmare was your own approach to the world that, in essence, proclaimed that in order for you to win, everyone else had to lose. From Novell to Sun to Netscape to Corel to Borland and even to your own half-child OS/2: All were/are the mortal enemy and had to be kept under relentless attack. That is, I guess, the warrior spirit; no quarter asked, and certainly none given. I'm enough of a free-market capitalist to recognize that.

The problem with this Linux thing, though, is that in the battle to marginalize, isolate, stigmatize and perhaps even cripple Linux, it's not going to be just Linux that bears the brunt of your assaults. Instead, it will be thousands of your customers who will also feel the nontrivial effects of that isolation and marginalization. Because for every Windows-only outfit like JetBlue Airways, there will be hundreds that will insist on running both Windows and Linux. And you are going to make--and perhaps are already making--the lives of those customers more miserable and costly than they need to be.


Other Voices
Although the most recent dramatic productivity surge will not persist beyond the next few quarters, productivity growth is likely to continue at an above-trend pace for years to come....Over time, the faster productivity growth will mean a higher standard of living, with most of the productivity gain eventually taking the form of higher real wages.

-- former Council of Economic Advisors chairman Martin Feldstein, Oct. 13, The Wall Street Journal

Here's a fact: A few weeks ago, we surveyed 400 business-technology executives about their attitudes toward and impressions of the interoperability between Windows and Linux. And of those 400 respondents, 88% of them--that's 352 out of 400 companies--believe that Microsoft has not done enough to help make those two operating systems work together smoothly and easily. Now, if those stats were reversed--that is, if 12% said you're not doing enough but 88% said you were--I could see how you might shrug and say, "Well, those 12% will just have to get over it." Better than 88%, maybe, but that would still leave 12% of U.S. businesses believing they are going to suffer due to your unwillingness to build tools that let Windows and Linux work smoothly together. Is that a warrior spirit, or is that close-minded and dangerous inflexibility? Or how about this: More than 80% of respondents say that if anybody delivers technological solutions to the Win-Lin situation, it will be the Linux community, and not you. And it seems to me that it would be very easy for customers to look at those two stats and conclude that Microsoft is not only causing the problem but is also unwilling to try to fix it, and while that all might be well and good for Microsoft, it sure stinks for me the customer.

Unless, that is, I'm willing to buy 100% Microsoft products. But reality shows us that very, very few companies are willing to do that. Reality shows us that large and medium-sized organizations today have and will continue to have heterogeneous environments. Reality shows us that those customers clearly and unmistakably value Linux over Windows in terms of security, low cost, and reliability. You are, of course, free to dispute those findings, but I don't think that's going to get you anywhere except further away from dealing with the fundamental realities: First, customers will deploy both Windows and Linux. Second, they will ideally want all of their systems to be able to work together without requiring 5,000 man-years of workarounds. Third, your value to those customers will decline if you continue to give them reason to believe that you are intentionally refusing to take the steps necessary to help them run their businesses, including their heterogeneous systems, more effectively. Fourth, it's a pretty danged competitive world out there these days, and I think that pain thresholds of business-technology managers are not as high as they used to be, making this the perfect time for them to say, "Enough--it's time to switch to somebody who makes it easier for us to do what we need to do." Fifth, those same people, more than ever before, are being charged with making more out of what they have and with ensuring that everything they currently have plus everything they're going to buy in the future will work together. And your actions are telling those customers that you--one of the most successful, wealthy, and influential corporations the world has ever seen--have thought long and hard about that and decided that the solution is for you to turn your problem, the growing appeal of Linux, into your customers' problem. Is that a message any company, even one as successful as yours, can afford to send?

Our capitalist system of vigorous and at times brutal competition waged for the benefit of consumers is priceless, and I'm certainly not suggesting you change your corporate name to KarlMarxware and your product's name to Lindox. But as you strive to move more deeply into the core operations of large organizations and become a highest-level strategic technology partner for them, you need to find ways in which you can win and the customer can win without everybody else--particularly Linux--having to lose. Because if you can't do that, then your warrior spirit will have driven you into a corner where you can indeed go right ahead and wage your war but you'll soon realize that you have met the enemy, and it is you.

You're much better than that, Microsoft, and you have a tremendous opportunity with Linux to do the right thing that will have not only immediate benefit to your customer but also, by extension, longer-range benefits for you. Good luck with this hairy situation, and don't forget to write back.

Bob Evans,
Editor in Chief
bevans@cmp.com


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Bob Evans's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Bob Evans, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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