What if Microsoft Ignored Linux?

Friday Feb 16th 2007 by Rob Enderle
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In its epic battle with Linux, Redmond has made some serious mistakes. Is there such a thing as a successful Microsoft Linux strategy?

Let’s be clear, Linux really isn’t the most lucrative platform on the market. It goes on the least expensive hardware, and much of what goes into it appears subsidized by other revenue streams. The marketing, such that it is, appears largely voluntary. The organizations that sit at the center, like the Linux Foundation, seem constantly underfunded or in the process of downsizing or changing leadership in preparation for downsizing.

Governments seem to like it a lot, probably because they see a lot of similarity in the OSS structure to their own, where progress is hardly a priority and often seems more like something to be avoided. The question of when the next major Linux release will occur is perennial. And in an environment where the next major license can’t even be decided on, the concept of a major OS release is virtually impossible to accomplish.

Linux is, in effect, cheap UNIX and much like the guy who has a cup out asking for donations lives on the generosity of others like HP and IBM. But Oracle recently demonstrated that this generosity may result in some unintended consequences if the “generous” company suddenly realizes they can take the corner and the cup any time they want.

There is no FUD in this. Linux isn’t changing much and there is no risk of Linux going away, so there is no Uncertainty. And nothing I’ve said should create Fear unless you’re trying to actually make money on Linux, and in that case I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. And I haven’t introduced any Doubt – you either know this to be true or don’t get out much.

I only set this up to say that Microsoft clearly wanted to beat Linux and with vastly more resources and supposedly more experience pretty much got its butt kicked up and down the court. This is kind of like a top tennis player going against an eight-year-old and losing badly.

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So now let’s introduce some FUD and ask the question: What would happen if Microsoft got its act together and came up with an effective anti-Linux strategy instead of the pro-Linux strategy they now have?

What, you think Microsoft has always had an anti-Linux strategy? Look at the results: virtually every time Microsoft attacks Linux it ends up stronger and more entrenched than before Microsoft took action.

Microsoft’s Error

The mistake I constantly see Microsoft making with Linux is the same mistake I’ve seen Microsoft competitors make when competing with Microsoft: focusing on the competition and not the customer.

This mistake is even a bigger problem with Linux because it isn’t a product from a company; not really, it’s seen as a collaborative offering created by the customers themselves. When you attack it, as SCO found out painfully, you end up attacking the very people you may want to sign the check for the stuff you sell – and that isn’t particularly smart.

So, what does the customer currently using Linux want? They want a good value, they want control of their own shop, they want to trust what they get and who is providing it, and they want to participate in decisions that affect them. They currently see Microsoft as too expensive, forcing them to upgrade or pay for products they don’t yet feel they need. Partially as a result, they don’t trust the company, and they feel that Microsoft doesn’t listen to them when they complain.

For Microsoft to attack Linux doesn’t fix these kinds of impressions. Because the attack is focused on IT’s own fix, it is often seen as an attack on them. And the Linux community, made up to a large extent by IT types, moves to defend the platform.

Next Page: Imagining a Successful Microsoft Linux Strategy

Imagining a Successful Microsoft Linux Strategy

So a successful Microsoft strategy would start with Microsoft. In fact, it might reside entirely in Microsoft. But starting with the development of a collaborative offering that would better embrace the related needs of Linux users than Microsoft’s current offering would only work if the folks participating trusted Microsoft.

So the first, and arguably most painful, step for the company would be to restore trust. To do that would require a stronger and more visible customer advocacy than currently exists in the company. But, once built, this advocacy, if done successfully, could alone do wonders for future product acceptance and related product success. Also, inside the company there needs to be stronger independent intelligence, which would help prevent failed strategies like “Get the Facts,” which reduced trust while fueling Linux community focus and adoption.

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In short, a successful Linux strategy wouldn’t be one where Microsoft attacked Linux at all; in fact, they might often praise and emulate it, to create offerings and forums which allowed their customers to perceive Microsoft future offerings as superior. It could result in much more creative pricing and financial rewards for those firms who more aggressively contributed to making these future products better.

Strangely enough, if you ignore the unfortunate intellectual property statements coming out of the CEO’s office at Microsoft, the move to partner with Novell could be the first big step to solving the intelligence problem at Microsoft, which goes to the core of their past failed Linux strategies. If they listen to Novell and don’t accidentally torpedo them, the end result could be an “ah hah” experience that would result in the change that Microsoft needs to effectively move back into the center of software and move Linux back to the fringes.

But these kinds of changes are very difficult. Executives resist seeing change. Often the measurements needed to show how bad a problem is simply don’t exist because executives fear they will be used against them in reviews.

However, Microsoft has a number of wake-up calls coming at them this year. IBM is at the heart of most of them. First, by using favorable perceptions of the Linux Foundation to eliminate one of Microsoft’s core advantages as an entrenched vendor, and second, a credible attack on the desktop that is only hindered by IBM own market blinders (which is a whole different column). Finally, Microsoft continues to bleed core executives to Google. And the folks they are losing, unlike those that went to Netscape, are really top employees, and each departure reinforces the message that problems that need to be addressed at Microsoft are being ignored.

I see the indications of change in some of the recent involuntary staffing changes, I see them in the emergence of approved and unapproved employee blogs, and I see them in the recent Novell partnership.

What I don’t yet see is the realization that they are on the wrong path. That, I believe, is coming. Let’s see how long it takes.

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