Breaking Windows

Are everyone's favorite Microsoft apps coming soon to a Linux box near you? Between a potential government breakup and a newly-announced .net strategy, that possibility seems more and more realistic...

Microsoft Opener

Microsoft is under pressure on the Linux front. While the company awaits a decision on whether the Supreme Court will hear its appeal of a federal order to split the company in two, a mutiny is occurring inside and outside its ranks. Inside the company, its own programmers — some of whom have used Linux for years — are putting pressure on management to start building Linux applications, according to insiders. Their argument: the Windows market for desktop applications is mature and growing at a slower rate than the potentially explosive market for Linux applications on the desktop. What’s more, if the Feds succeed in breaking up the software giant, asked one Microsoft programmer, “isn’t it better to be ahead of the game, with Linux applications ready to hit the market” just when smaller rivals are ready to make a splash? The only thing holding back applications for Linux inside Microsoft is the behemoth’s paranoia about cannibalizing its own Windows empire, insiders acknowledge. While Microsoft has sometimes publicly argued that it has no problem creating software for rival platforms, citing the Mac as an example, insiders point out that the Mac was never really a competitive threat to the software giant because it represents a different processor platform. As one Microsoft programmer put it; “The Intel-based PC has been Microsoft’s strategic platform from the start. Any threat to dominance there is of primary concern to the company.”

Indeed, this was a key concern on the part of federal regulators when coming to grips with how to remedy Microsoft’s anti-competitive conduct. Justice department and state attorneys who proposed their plan to Microsoft argued that forcing a separation between the operating system enterprise and applications, including Internet software, would ensure that the applications company would be driven more by market opportunity than a monopolist’s concern with preserving its market power.

Outside the company, some of Microsoft’s largest partners and customers are putting pressure on the software giant. Company insiders say that it is not lost on programmers inside the applications group that computer giant Compaq has been selling 18,000 Linux servers per quarter. (At least that’s the amount sold in the fourth quarter of 1999, according to a study by IDC.)

Even Microsoft’s close partner Intel has spread Linux program managers throughout the company, and many industry watchers say the chip giant’s investments in Red Hat, Turbo Linux, VA Linux, and others would probably have been thwarted if Microsoft had not been under intense scrutiny by antitrust regulators. (The software giant successfully squelched Intel’s past attempts to develop new technologies that strayed from the Microsoft camp.)

This past June, Intel announced its Linux-based dot.station, and Microsoft programmers are wondering why it doesn’t make sense to write applications for that machine.

In the midst of all of this, Microsoft has recently come public with it’s road map for the future of Windows and Office, and it calls it Microsoft .Net. .Net is Microsoft’s plan for bringing Windows and Office to the next generation of computing devices, which will be Internet-centric, rather than PC-centric.

But what is the .NET strategy, really, and what does it mean for Linux? Could it allow Microsoft to avoid ever having to develop applications specifically for the Linux market?

The Appearance of Openness?

Microsoft Bill
“Our goal is to move beyond today’s world of standalone Web sites to an Internet of interchangeable components where devices and services can be assembled into cohesive, user-driven experiences.” — Bill Gates

In a carefully orchestrated campaign of leaks to the press, Microsoft has hoped to create the impression that it is becoming more “open” in its approaches to competition. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has hinted that the company is considering making some of its code “open source” and may be looking at Linux applications, while providing no details on when or how this might happen.

The recently announced .NET strategy now being scrutinized by federal lawyers offers few technical details regarding how that might be accomplished. Microsoft talks of “dynamic delivery” of software to “any device” on the market, and a “universal canvas.” But will Microsoft’s universal canvas lock out Linux devices?

Bill Gates has said that the .NET software will break down barriers between computing devices, Web sites, organizations, and industries to help realize the full potential of the Internet. In his own words; “Our goal is to move beyond today’s world of standalone Web sites to an Internet of interchangeable components where devices and services can be assembled into cohesive, user-driven experiences.”

He and Microsoft, however, refused to answer questions about what the .NET strategy means for the Linux market and Linux developers.

Linux users hope the company is sincere when it talks about “any device.” The ability to run industry-standard Office productivity applications on Linux devices, ranging from PCs to mobile computers to Internet appliances, would have an enormous impact on the adoption of the Linux operating system.

Indeed, some analysts warn that Linux devices will still be considered “second class citizens” in an all Windows world. IDC analyst Al Gillen said, “I see no reason at this point in time why Microsoft would elevate a Linux client to be a first class citizen, on a par with a Windows client. It’s simply not in their best interest to do that.”

Interestingly, Microsoft’s claim that Office will be part of the .NET “dynamic delivery” of software to “any device” on the market seems to imply that operating systems will become irrelevant. The implication is that, via Office .NET, those using any operating system will have access to Microsoft’s Office suite. However, industry watchers warn that Microsoft intends to tightly control the underlying technology that will tie Office to the Internet.

Microsoft Bob Muglia
“We are moving from delivering software in a packaged form that has to be installed and deployed, to delivering it as a service.” — Robert Muglia

According to Robert Muglia, group vice president for Microsoft’s business productivity group, the .NET strategy is simply about delivering software in a completely new way. “We are moving from delivering software in a packaged form that has to be installed and deployed, to delivering it as a service,” he said, meaning that under .NET, software will no longer be permanently installed on a PC, but instead delivered on demand via the Internet.

As with his peers, Muglia was mum on the topic of how this strategy will specifically impact the Linux market. All he would say is; “We need to take .NET and broaden it out to work across multiple devices. The PC, but also cell phones and a wide variety of other devices.”

So what will be part of .NET? According to Muglia; “In the short run we’ve been working on the next version of Office, and you can expect to see a traditional version of Office with Word and Excel, PowerPoint all as a part of it. But as we move forward with Office, we will be incorporating .NET technology into it and at the same time we’ll be working on a totally new version. You can think of it as Office .NET or Office that’s delivered as a software service.”

With .NET, Microsoft says that “every application can be exposed as a service on the Internet.” But in the first release of Windows.NET — code-named Whistler — IDC’s Gillen says that it is likely that only Windows .NET users will have access to applications through Office .NET.

Over the longer term, however, if Microsoft is sincere about delivering applications software as a service to any device, the .NET strategy bodes well for Linux, Gillen said. “But I think what you will see for some time to come is that Windows devices will have a richer interface on them than non-Windows devices just because of the synergy. It remains to be seen what the Microsoft .NET program will bring to non-Microsoft devices.”

And what about developers? In a white paper Microsoft issued to developers in June, the company states that it is “offering every developer the tools they need to transform the Web and every other aspect of the computing experience.” Again, IDC’s Gillen doubts that “every developer” will include Linux developers.

Chicken and Egg

IDC has analyzed Microsoft’s opportunities in the Linux space. On the client side, Microsoft’s key area of focus is productivity applications: word processing, spreadsheets, presentation software, and databases.

The Mac and Windows platforms, on the client side, accounted for about 92 percent of all client operating environment shipments in 1999, according to IDC. By comparison, Linux accounted for about four percent of the total.

If Microsoft were split up, the question is whether a Microsoft applications company looking at new markets would deem it worthwhile to move to Linux in order to gain an extra four points of market share, Gillen said.

But it’s a chicken-and-egg situation. The growth of the Linux operating system market would arguably be huge if Microsoft desktop applications were suddenly available on Linux. The growth potential would clearly be much larger than current measurements.

Microsoft Al Gillen
“I see no reason at this point in time why Microsoft would elevate a Linux client to be a first class citizen, on a par with a Windows client. It’s simply not in their best interest to do that.” — Al Gillen

Still, Gillen is conservative. “For a company like Microsoft, because of the size of their business, they would need to look at their return. Granted it’s a growing market, but right now the traditional client operating environment market is not, at least from our perspective, shaping up to be the area where Linux is going to have the most impact. It will have a greater impact in the embedded space and the server space. I question whether it would be financially justified for the company to make the investment that would be required to bring their products to Linux on the desktop.”

“On the other hand, if there was a Microsoft applications company, the server arena is a market that would be very competitive. Under this scenario, the products that Microsoft would look at bringing to Linux would probably include their Access database product, and Exchange, their groupware product. Given the way the market is configured currently, you’d be looking at competing against IBM and Oracle on the database side, and companies like Lotus on the groupware side — as well as Sendmail, which is very popular,” Gillen said.

In the server arena, it would be difficult for Microsoft to capture a large marketshare in the Linux space as it would be moving into a market where it had no presence before, and would be competing against established, well funded, entrenched competitors.

Gillen notes, “We recognize a certain portion of the Linux community is religious about Linux and this group would be absolutely hostile to any Microsoft product. But this group constitutes the minority of the Linux user community moving forward. Statistically they’d be a small percentage of the market. When you get the general user at the Fortune 2000 company that’s looking at a product for Linux, the IT manager is not going think ‘I’m not going to use Microsoft just because I hate Microsoft’. That’s a much less likely scenario.”

Linux is a particular threat to Microsoft in the embedded software space, which includes set-top boxes and interactive television. As previously mentioned, Intel recently announced its dot.station Internet appliance, a device aimed at this market, which runs Linux. These kinds of devices represent a potentially huge untapped market –those who will be using hybrid computing/entertainment devices in their living rooms. Unfortunately for Microsoft, in this space they are still playing catch-up with Windows CE. It recently announced Windows CE 3.1 and they are making improvements to that product “to address its shortcomings in the embedded space,” Gillen said.

Two Sides to Every Coin

While Microsoft’s entrance into the Linux applications market would surely be a boon for the growth of the Linux market overall, IDC analysts say that it would also mean stiffer competition for existing Linux developers. An independent Microsoft applications company could be a threat to Linux desktop developers such as Corel, Applix and Sun Microsystems (which owns StarOffice).

Judge Jackson’s order that Microsoft refrain from penalizing business partners who choose to also endorse competing technologies would have a positive influence on encouraging PC and server manufacturers to collaborate with Linux providers. “That would give the open source market a major boost,” according to Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of IDC’s System Software research.

Still, making it easier for PC hardware manufacturers to collaborate with companies doing Linux desktop development may not be enough. In what seems like an ironic twist of fate, even if Microsoft is truly sincere about making Office .NET available on all kinds of devices, its entry into the Linux market has the potential to badly damage the existing desktop players.

Can even a government mandated break-up or behavioral restriction change that aspect of this situation? Or is this even a real issue to consider? Is it possible that the existing Linux office suite players would continue to grow and thrive in a market that includes Microsoft as a direct competitor? Only time will tell.

Breaking Ground

Whatever else you can say about Microsoft, one thing is for sure — they never like to be caught unprepared. Just 10 minutes from Microsoft’s Redmond campus, east of Seattle in Issaquah, Washington, a three million square foot office campus is currently being built which can accommodate 12,000 employees. Company insiders, as well as real estate brokers in the area, speculate this will be the future site of a Microsoft applications company, if the software giant is ordered to be broken up. (Microsoft currently has about 20,000 employees in the Seattle area.)

Meanwhile, Microsoft is bolstering its legal team, and preparing a huge new office site in Washington, while waiting to hear whether the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia or the Supreme Court will hear its appeal of the Federal court ruling that the company violated antitrust laws and should be split in two.

Regardless of which court hears the appeal, Department of Justice sources said that it is expected that Microsoft may have to defend its .NET strategy, which the Feds may cite as an example of an opportunity for continued, potentially anti-competitive leveraging of its market power to the Internet. The Feds see the strategy as a way to irrevocably tie Windows technology into Web-based software, while Microsoft is expected to argue the contrary — that its strategy makes operating systems moot, seeing that software will theoretically be delivered as a service to any computing device.

Wendy Goldman Rohm is the co-author of Under the Radar. She can be reached at wendy@linux-mag.com.

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