Microsoft trial shifts to enterprise concerns

Corporate IT concerns are getting top billing in the Microsoft Corp. antitrust trial as the federal judge overseeing the case considers proposed remedies intended to improve server integration and desktop competition by porting Office to Linux.

Carl Ledbetter, chief technology officer at Novell Inc., told the court last week that Microsoft hasn’t disclosed several application programming interfaces (API) “sorely needed to improve the interoperability” of Windows and NetWare, his company’s network operating system.

The remedy proposed by the nine nonsettling states and the District of Columbia would give Novell and other firms access to Microsoft’s source code. A proposed settlement agreed to by Microsoft and the Bush administration requires Microsoft to disclose APIs, the doorways between programs, but it doesn’t give competitors direct source-code access.

The interoperability of NetWare with Windows applications is a concern of Hugh Winesett, a senior systems analyst at Southwest Gas Corp., a Las Vegas-based utility with 1.3 million customers. The company runs far more NetWare servers than Microsoft servers but uses Microsoft applications such as Excel. And Winesett said there are sometimes problems with performance and file saving on Novell servers.

Southwest Gas remains committed to NetWare because of the software’s cost and stability, said Winesett, but there’s pressure to change. Interoperability issues draw management questions that put IT managers on the defensive. “It forces you into a Microsoft solution because of user complaints,” he said.

The states would also require Microsoft to auction Office licenses to rival developers so they can port the software to port it to other operating systems. One company likely to bid on such a license is Linux vendor Red Hat Inc.

Michael Tiemann, chief technology officer at the Raleigh, N.C.-based firm, told the court last week that support for Office is “the first question” asked by enterprise users. And with it available on Linux, the open-source operating system would improve on its current 2 percent market share.

IT managers agreed. “If Office were available for a Linux desktop, there would be a number of CIOs who would push their desktop teams to Linux,” said Brian Kilcourse, CIO at Longs Drug Stores Corp., a Walnut Creek, Calif.-based retail chain with about 5,000 end users. One reason Kilcourse said he would consider switching to Linux is because Microsoft is making it “increasingly difficult to choose enterprise tools” such as Java “that aren’t Microsoft-based on the server side.”

Office on Linux would make it possible for Jack Billiel, the IT manager at dairy company H.P. Hood Inc. in Chelsea, Mass., to consider installing Linux on user laptops — if he knew that there would be no technical problems and that it would save money. “If it’s not going to be cost-effective, why would I bother making the change?” he asked.