Exec: Linux commercialization helps Microsoft

Martin Taylor recently marked his one-year anniversary as Microsoft's chief Linux strategist. Taylor, whose official title is general manager of platform strategy, spoke with Computerworld about the insights he has gained.

What are some of the lessons you've learned?

I initially thought that people were really lining up Windows and Linux side by side, and they'd say, "Hey, Linux gives us better TCO." Actually, it's less about that. What they know is, "Hey, we can save money getting off Unix or off of RISC. So the question is, do we go to Linux or do we go to Windows?" That's where more of the comparison comes from. When I talk to customers and they say, "Hey, we can get better TCO with Linux," they're not always saying better than Windows. They're saying better than Unix.

Any other surprises?

One other thing that's come up more over the last 12 months is this notion of indemnification (against patent and copyright claims). More and more customers are asking us, "Help me understand what you do from an indemnification perspective versus HP or IBM or Red Hat or Novell." . . . And I began to say, "Wow. We really stand behind our technology in a pretty aggressive way. We should make sure that we get credit for that compared to Linux in many ways." And it's actually been something that tips the scales sometimes when people are on the fence.

Another thing that shocked me this year was the commercialization of Linux -- in a good way, quite honestly, for me . . . because it allows us to talk more in those commercial terms. When you're getting something for free, (vendors) get a lot of "get out of jail free" cards. You (hear people saying), "Oh well. We didn't pay for it, so we shouldn't care too much about security. We'll fix it ourselves. Oh, there's no regression testing. Who cares? We'll do that ourselves." But once you start writing a check, you now have demands, and rightfully so.

What's your take on Novell?

They're in this in-between period. They want to be platform-agnostic a little bit, because really their business is not NetWare. Their business is ZENworks and all the stuff that runs on top, and they wanted to do that on Windows and on Linux and on NetWare. But over time, they're going to have to really get committed to a platform and further invent that.

In Toronto in July, I had 12 top Novell resellers from around the world for about four hours and just listened. I really have to understand what's happening in the marketplace. And Novell is pushing very hard obviously to get them up to speed on SUSE (Linux). . . . I think they are going to outpace Red Hat as the preferred Linux distribution.

So in the long term, Novell is your greatest Linux competitor?

No question, because they have the best point-to-point stack from the kernel through to the application layer and things that go on top of it.

Now the challenge will be (that) they're going to need to do stuff to differentiate themselves from Red Hat, which then means that they need to find ways to basically almost have a customized distribution. And you can end up with Linux not being Linux, but Red Hat Linux being different than Novell SUSE Linux, Debian Linux and Mandrake, or whatever the case is.

Microsoft commissioned analyst firms to do reports to help you "get out the facts" about Linux. Are you still doing that?

If there are facts or things that are needed, I'm going to hope that I can entice the analyst firms to go do it on their own because they think it's also important. But if they don't, then I'll commission it.

If you could turn back the clock, is there anything you would do differently? If I had one extra arm or 24 hours in parallel, I would have spent a bit more time on our Unix migration activities, because that's where you continue to see good traction from a Linux perspective. And we have a pretty good story to tell.

Are customers still complaining about Microsoft's licensing policies?

I spend half (as much of) my time on licensing than I did a year ago. . . . (With) all my customers over the last two months, I might have discussed licensing three or four times, whereas it was a guaranteed conversation a year ago.

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