No doubt about it, Microsoft has Linux on its radar. And as
Since 1998, when Linux first came on Microsoft’s radar, the Redmond, WA company’s stealth campaigns designed to disparage the operating system have been exposed and scrutinized with unprecedented effectiveness, thanks to the galvanization of the Linux community and the instant dissemination of information via the Internet.
In the spring of 1999, Microsoft funded a study comparing the performance of Linux to its Windows NT operating system. The study was released by the Mindcraft research firm, but instead of setting off a traditional public-relations war in the trade press between rival companies, the report spawned an online avalanche of ad hoc commentary and criticism from within the Linux community.
“Every single time Microsoft makes a press release or announcement that spins their way, you’ll find various people on the Internet dissecting it,” says Linux creator Linus Torvalds. “This is not a planned effort on the part of Linux programmers,” he adds. “The most orchestration that happens is that people tell each other to calm down and not get too hot-headed, and then the normal Internet channels act as a conduit to journalists and analysts that would otherwise not have heard the other side at all.”
“Intelligence” has long been one of the software giant’s fortes, as Justice Department investigators know. Its competitive stalking activities have ranged from routine collection of market data, to aggressive disparagement campaigns to create FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt — a term littered throughout Microsoft’s internal e-mail communications) in the marketplace when it comes to rival technologies.
More recently, while Microsoft was smiling and extolling the success of Linux to Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson in federal court, under the cloak it continued to wield a dagger.
“Hello. This is a demonstration of the Caldera OpenLinux operating system. The demonstration will show that Caldera’s operating system provides effective functionality for end users… The Caldera operating system is… powerful and easy to use.”
These are not the words of some bright-eyed Caldera sales representative, but the utterances of a Microsoft representative during a demo presented in federal court during the antitrust trial last year.
In the courtroom that day, onlookers could not squelch snickers of disbelief. Microsoft, known to be one of the most aggressive and combative companies in all of history, was politely complimenting the products of its operating system competitors. But outside of the courtroom, quite a different portrait was being painted by Microsoft to its customers in an effort to disparage Linux products and the competition they were posing to its operating-system monopoly.
Microsoft’s earliest FUD campaigns against Linux began around the time that Vinod Valloppillil, a program manager in Microsoft’s Windows NT group, composed his first strategy document evaluating how the software giant should respond to new competition on the scene. His now infamous “Halloween documents,” actually written in August 1998 but leaked to the press in October, analyzed the very real threat that open source software posed to Microsoft and suggested a number of tactics aimed at countering the competitive threat.
When they were made public, the Halloween documents spread like wildfire throughout the Linux community and trade press, and Microsoft public relations went into damage-control mode. What did Valloppillil mean when he said that Microsoft should seek to “to deny [open source software] projects entry into the market?” The report made it clear that Microsoft knew exactly what Linux users had been saying all along: that the free operating system was a serious competitive threat.
Members of the Linux community took the memo as validation that Linux was formidable enough to attract the big guns of Microsoft. Programmers also wondered what Microsoft’s next attack might be.
Every single time Microsoft makes a press release or announcement that spins their way, you’ll find various people on the Internet dissecting it.
Attack Team? What Attack Team?
Interestingly, as part of his duties as a Linux intelligence gatherer, Valloppillil says he was directed to gather evidence to support Microsoft in its antitrust trial. His job was, on the one hand, to illustrate that competition indeed existed in the market for personal-computer operating systems, and on the other hand, to secretly suggest ways of undermining it.
Valloppillil, who left Microsoft in August 1999 for Web-based voicemail provider onebox.com, had worked with Microsoft manager Jim Ewel — the man the Wall Street Journal has dubbed the leader of Microsoft’s “Linux Attack Team.” But Valloppillil says he still “can’t comment” on the specific activities he and Ewel were engaged in. He also declines to say who within Microsoft read and responded to his Linux memos. When he left the company, Microsoft swore him to secrecy. “This is very sensitive stuff,” says Valloppillil, following the comment with silence.
Keith White, Microsoft’s director of Windows marketing, says there is no ‘Linux Attack Team’ at Microsoft. According to White,”The IT industry is a very competitive industry and therefore it’s routine and appropriate for Microsoft — and we would assume all other vendors — to research, write about, and assess all competitors, both from a business model point of view and from a technical point of view.”
Cloaks and Daggers
Linux appears on Microsoft’s radar screen, and Vinod Valloppillil creates his “Halloween” documents, analyzing what Microsoft can do to slow down Linux developers.
In public statements meant to get a lot of press and also impress the court, in January 1999, during the U.S. versus Microsoft antitrust trial, Microsoft vice president Paul Maritz testifies that the open source movement poses a major threat to Microsoft’s lead in the market for operating system software.
Microsoft surreptitiously commissions Mindcraft to do a study that shows Windows NT to be superior in performance to Linux. It broadcasts the report, failing to make public that it paid for it to be done and unfairly rigged benchmark tests.
In a blatant and highly visible move (that was also more honest in that it did not pretend to be anything but the view of Microsoft), the software giant posts its “Linux Myths” white paper on the microsoft.com Web site, claiming that the Linux movement is mostly hype.
Microsoft’s Peace Of Mindcraft
Microsoft’s next major missile lobbed at the Linux community was the embarrassing Mindcraft report. Released in response to a publicized test finding Linux to be 50 percent faster than NT, the April 1999 report determined that Windows NT was 3.7 times faster than Linux as a Web server and 2.5 times faster as a fileserver.
The report turned out to be the latest in a series of reports by Mindcraft that had found that NT was superior to every single operating system it came up against. Sun’s Solaris and Novell’s NetWare had also been deemed inferior by Mindcraft.
Linux evangelists immediately responded by tearing the report to pieces. Mindcraft had misconfigured the Linux server used in the benchmark. The company used version 2.2.2 of the Linux kernel, even though 2.2.3 was available and contained significant improvements. Adjustments known to improve the performance of Samba systems were not performed. In addition, Mindcraft used a RAID controller, which is not well-supported under Linux; another controller would have yielded better results. The most appalling thing was that the company appeared to have spent much time and effort to specifically optimize NT to make it look better against Linux. NT was given a 1012 MB swap file; Linux got nothing.
Adding insult to injury, Mindcraft then claimed, “We posted notices on various Linux and Apache news groups and received no relevant responses.” The study added, “The documentation on how to configure the latest Linux kernel for the best performance is very difficult to find.” The open source software community, which prides itself on its responsiveness, was particularly inflamed by this account. Mindcraft had called Red Hat once, oddly asking for sophisticated performance tuning from a novice-level installation help line. It also had sent Usenet postings to inappropriate news groups.
Linus Torvalds, however, notes that while he was at first upset by the Mindcraft debacle, he soon realized that Microsoft was doing the Linux community a favor. The Mindcraft tests were “a temporary embarrassment to us, but I’m not feeling that bad about it,” Torvalds says.
“I felt bad at first. But when I actually started thinking about it I thought hey what the hell, as long as I feel confident in the basics of Linux, I don’t ever really worry that they would ever find something seriously wrong that we couldn’t fix. They’re actually doing our work for us. They are finding out weaknesses for us so that we can fix them. And that’s kind of ironic in itself. Don’t tell them!”
Such attack campaigns on the part of Microsoft do not surprise Red Hat. In the past Microsoft has used blatant strong-arm tactics and sometimes, according to the Justice Department, outright bribery to force companies to refrain from using competing technology. When Intel began developing its own digital signal-processing technology just a few years ago, Microsoft threatened to partner with other chip makers, leaving Intel in the lurch. Intel dropped the technology.
Behind the scenes, sources say, Microsoft became enraged when Intel announced its investment in Red Hat, with Bill Gates himself confronting Intel Chairman Andy Grove on the issue. But with the DOJ’s continued scrutiny of its every move, Bill Gates’s rage may not be as threatening as it once was. Intel remains an investor in Red Hat, and Grove himself put in a surprise appearance at last summer’s LinuxWorld Expo in San Jose, CA.
Linus Torvalds is not concerned about strong-arm tactics. Open source developers have one major advantage, he says. While the Justice Department showed during the trial that Microsoft had hurt its rivals by starving them out of revenue, or “cutting off their air supply” as one internal Microsoft memo stated, the company cannot kill Linux in that manner. “We don’t have any revenue,” says Torvalds.
Microsoft was nonetheless ramping up an aggressive campaign to discredit Linux in the eyes of corporate buyers. The Linux attack mandate comes from high up on Microsoft’s corporate ladder. In early 1999, Microsoft’s senior vice president in charge of operating systems, Jim Allchin, ordered his engineers to do continual benchmark tests on the operating system in comparison to his company’s forthcoming release of Windows.
But companies like Red Hat do worry about revenue. Industry watchers say that if the DOJ investigation had not happened, Microsoft may have been able to successfully strong-arm Intel out of making an investment in Red Hat. In addition to bringing it a presence in a promising new market, Intel’s investment in Red Hat also gives it enormous new leverage over Microsoft.
This fact is not lost on Microsoft, which continues its attempts to dampen the attention on Linux. Prior to Intel’s worldwide launch of its Pentium III processor, Red Hat and Intel had worked for months to present an impressive demo for the occasion that would be featured in major cities around the world. The two were working to demonstrate a Pentium III machine running Red Hat Linux and a Ben & Jerry’s e-commerce application running on Oracle software. Shortly before the event, Microsoft succeeded in killing the demo and pressured Intel into replacing it with Windows NT running the same application, according to sources within Red Hat. Intel denies that this ever happened.
Aware of Microsoft’s potential threat to the company, Red Hat executives did consider what Microsoft could do to harm the Linux-distribution vendor, according to Red Hat Chairman Bob Young. For example, he says, Red Hat executives considered what would happen if, a week before its IPO was to register, Microsoft were to fund a whole bunch of little developers “to sue us, claiming ownership of some piece of the code we were shipping.” Young says Red Hat thought “that could scare some investors who might believe such suits had some merit.”
“Of course we knew it would be an unbelievably bad PR move for Microsoft, unless it conducted such activity via one of its stealth campaigns. Fortunately, with the Internet, Microsoft’s stealth campaigns are getting a little more exposure than they would have otherwise.”
This series of Linux reports by the Gartner Group was independent Gartner research done by their analysts. Microsoft did not sponsor or pay for any of these research notes.
- Keith White, Microsoft Corp.
The Janus-Faced Corporation
In January 1999, during the United States v. Microsoft antitrust trial in the federal courtroom of Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, Microsoft vice president Paul Maritz, the number three executive at the company behind Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, testified that the open source movement posed a major threat to Microsoft’s lead in the market for operating system software. That didn’t quite jibe with Bill Gates’ own earlier comments that “I’ve never had a customer mention Linux to me.”
Later, in March, speaking to the press and apparently not thinking that Judge Jackson might be listening, Microsoft manager Ed Muth said, “The more I study Linux, the weaker the value proposition is to customers.” Several months after the trial had ended, Maritz himself, who had earlier called Linux a major threat to Microsoft before Judge Jackson, again showed Microsoft’s other face. “Linux currently appeals to hobbyists, but not to the general public,” he said.
In October, Microsoft broadcast its critique of Linux on its Web site, in a white paper known as “Linux Myths.” While the judge had not yet issued his findings, all evidence had been collected. The trial was over. This document would not be part of the judge’s evaluation.
“Linux was not designed from the ground up to support SMP, graphical user interfaces, asynchronous I/O, fine grained security model, and many other important characteristics of a modern operating system. These architectural limitations mean that as customers look for a platform to cost effectively deploy scalable, secure and robust applications, Linux cannot deliver on the hype,” Microsoft wrote in “Linux Myths.”
“What they are saying is that Linux evolved over time, instead of being designed from a preconceived notion of how an OS should look. Is that a bad thing?” asks Torvalds. “Obviously not in my opinion,” he continues, “I think the user-directed evolution that Linux has had has been its main strength: instead of having preconceived notions about what users should and should not do, Linux has been reacting to user needs as they have changed,” Torvalds says. “So yes, ‘not designed from the ground up’ is strictly true.”
“That’s one thing Microsoft did learn,” Torvalds says. “They used to have outright lies in some of their material, and they avoided that very carefully in their ‘Linux Myths’ paper. But the fact is that pretty much everybody considers Linux more stable and secure than the rival offerings from Microsoft. So is the ‘ground up’ strategy really the correct one in a complex system? Or is the evolutionary strategy the better one. You decide.”
Microsoft became enraged when Intel
announced its investment in Red Hat,
with Bill Gates himself confronting Intel Chairman Andy Grove on the issue.
The Gartner Incident
In an earlier controversial study that some, like Eric Raymond, stated was a veiled Microsoft-funded effort, Gartner Group published a series of disparaging reports about Linux attributing copyright of the material to Microsoft. Was the Gartner report in question funded by Microsoft?
This series of Linux reports by the Gartner Group was independent research done by their analysts, says Microsoft. Microsoft did not sponsor or pay for any of these research notes, says Microsoft’s White. “It is very unfortunate that Eric Raymond did not speak with either Microsoft or Gartner to check his facts before making these inaccurate claims.”
He explains, “Gartner Group has a program that is open to all vendors called WebLetters — where a vendor can get rights to publish existing reports written by the Gartner Group. Gartner’s business model is to charge for its research and analysis that it performs independently of any vendor. As part of the WebLetters program Microsoft pays for the right to publish existing Gartner research for a limited period of time.” Microsoft, says White, chose to publish these Linux reports on the WebLetter program, “which are published on a Gartner-hosted Web site.”
When asked if Microsoft has ever seriously considered open sourcing some of its products, White says, “Microsoft already has numerous mechanisms for partners, customers, and academia to get access to source code of Windows NT. We are continuously evaluating whether these current mechanisms can be improved upon. In addition we are working with customers to understand what their requirements are for source-code access. However we don’t have anything new to share at this time.”
In fact, software developers report that Microsoft charges enormous sums for access to source code — hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more, according to one developer — and does not allow all companies to purchase source code, no matter what they pay. Companies it views as competitors are not allowed to buy source code at any cost, developers said.
Is Microsoft interested in relationships with any open source companies? White refuses to speculate on this. He adds that he also “couldn’t speculate” on whether Microsoft has evaluated its potential role in the Linux applications market, or at what point it would make sense for Microsoft to participate in that market.
An upcoming order by Judge Jackson may change the conflicting faces of Microsoft, and may blunt the daggers and expose what’s under the cloak. Industry watchers say if the judge, for example, splits Microsoft’s operating systems division from its applications division, you will see the latter company embracing Linux and going after the enormous profits it would enjoy, offering Microsoft Office and other applications to a hungry and rapidly growing market.
Is Linux enemy number one at Microsoft? Probably not. With the Department of Justice, Sun Microsystems and its emerging Jini platform, and its own high-profile Windows 2000 operating system to contend with, Microsoft has plenty to think about these days. But with no slowdown in sight to Linux’s growing moment, we can be sure to expect more cloak and dagger tactics from Redmond.
The Man Behind Halloween
Linux Magazine: What moved you to do the analysis of Linux in the Halloween documents?
Vinod Valloppillil: It’s the way any type of competitive analysis happens at Microsoft. It bubbles up from the bottom. I was a program manager in the operating systems group, the NT group.
LM: How closely was Microsoft following Linux?
VV: I was one of the first people to examine it. I was examining it at a hobbyist level. We’re all geeks back there.
LM: Who at Microsoft read your report and how did they respond?
VV: That’s definitely company confidential. I can’t talk about it. It’s obviously extremely sensitive stuff.
LM: I wonder why.
VV: Exactly. [He laughs.]
LM: Were the documents intentionally leaked?
VV: Definitely not.
LM: Did you know Eric Raymond, who first published them on the Web?
VV: Not personally or directly.
LM: How did he get the documents?
VV: It’s a mystery to this day. Microsoft is a big company, we’re prolific e-mail users internally. It only takes one person to accidentally forward the e-mail that contains this document to one of his buddies or to some mailing list that has someone external on it, and that person forwards it to five of his friends, and the next thing you know…
LM: How did Microsoft feel about the way it was received in the press?
VV: Overall, we did not comment deeply
on that document, its definitely an internal document. It’s standard company protocol to not talk about internal documents. They weren’t designed for public consumption.
LM: Did you help others at Microsoft learn about Linux? It sounds like you were pretty expert at it.
VV: Yes, that’s probably true.
LM: Were there any serious product evaluations of Linux going on?
VV: Yes. The Halloween documents have some of that stuff.
LM: Did Microsoft try to find out how the documents were leaked?
VV: I don’t know. I can’t comment.
LM: Microsoft has put a lot of effort into disparaging Linux, with the Myths paper and the Mindcraft reports. Were you involved in creating these?
VV: I can’t comment.
Wendy Goldman Rohm is editor-at-large for Linux Magazine. She is the author of The Microsoft File: The Secret Case Against Bill Gates and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.