Microsoft goes unemotional on Linux

Having called Linux and open-source software a cancer, un-American and bankrupt, Microsoft Corp. now plans to focus on facts instead of emotions, according to the company’s competitive strategist.

“There were some emotional statements made before; we’re now on a direction to talk about the facts,” said Martin Taylor on Thursday. As the company’s general manager of platform strategy, Taylor drives Microsoft’s thinking when it comes to Linux and other open-source products. He was appointed to the job two weeks ago.

It took a few years, but Microsoft now appears to have changed its tactics in its battle with Linux.

“It is not a religious discussion, it is a business model discussion,” Taylor said. “We kind of defaulted (to emotion) because we could not think about Linux in the right way.”

At a large Microsoft meeting in New Orleans a few weeks ago, Taylor and Kevin Johnson, who heads up worldwide sales and marketing at Microsoft, told the company’s sales force that Microsoft wants to have “fact-based conversations, not emotional conversations” about Linux and open source, Taylor said.

Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer, who two years ago likened Linux to a cancer, gave a textbook example of the new fact-based tactic last week at Microsoft’s annual financial analyst meeting. Using numbers from various research companies, Ballmer said Windows costs less, runs faster and is more secure than Linux.

However, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates, in a question-and-answer session at the same event, seemed to swerve off the factual course as the discussion heated up a bit. “The open source license is not open, because you can’t take it and ever use it in a job-creating activity,” Gates said.

Taylor succeeded Peter Houston as Microsoft’s Linux point man. As senior director of server strategy, Houston laid much of the groundwork for the move from emotion and religion to facts in Microsoft’s competitive strategy, said Al Gillen, research director at analyst company IDC, in Framingham, Mass.

“Microsoft went to that transition six to eight months ago. However, it is probably the first time that they have messaged this on a broad scale to the salespeople,” Gillen said. “It is better for Microsoft to approach open source as a competitive threat and not trying to discount and undermine it. Whenever you hear those comments, it causes a lot of commotion and excitement, but it does not do anything positive for Microsoft.”

Open source advocates were unimpressed by Microsoft’s new focus.

“More based on facts and less emotional: It would be a more interesting statement if they hadn’t started from such a low point,” said Open Source Initiative President Eric Raymond. “They can talk about being more factual, but they’ve got a long way to go before they reach civilized standards of discourse.”

Microsoft is changing its tactics because its earlier attacks on open source have backfired, Raymond said. “A lot of people they talked to were interpreting ‘Linux as cancer’ as self-serving FUD (an attempt to create fear, uncertainty and doubt), and the only thing it was doing was making Linux look good,” he said.

Microsoft will be exhibiting at the LinuxWorld Conference & Expo that starts Aug. 4. in San Francisco. It will be the third time the Redmond, Wash., software titan has exhibited at a LinuxWorld event.