A Microsoft programme manager called Michael Surkan has sent e-mail to Linux user group administrators asking them to respond to a survey. Its aim is to help Microsoft improve its operating systems over the next five years and Surkan wants to know why Linux and Open Source is so useful. Here is the text of the mail he has sent:

"I am a program manager in the Microsoft networking group, doing some research around how we can improve our operating systems. My goal is to help us identify capabilities, improvements, and features that Microsoft should be focusing on to help our customers over the next 5 years or so. I am particularly interested in hearing from Linux users, and get their input about what they feel should be priorities.

I was wondering if you would mind if I posted a message on your Linux mailing list ([email protected]) asking for feedback? I want to ask for people to e-mail me directly if they would be interested in taking an on-line survey I have put together (sorry, I don't want to post the survey URL directly to the public).

If you don't feel this is an appropriate use of your list, that's fine. Of course, I am always eager to hear your thoughts if you wanted to share them. :-)

Thanks, Michael Surkan"

Surkan also wrote this text in another e-mail sent to a Linux user group; "For what it's worth, I actually like Linux, and use it for some projects at home and for our family. Not that I consider myself an expert by ANY stretch of the imagination."

And then he added, "P.S. This report is a skunkworks project of mine, and really doesn't have anything to do with my "day" job. I just feel very strongly that Microsoft needs to listen better to what users need and want to try and change attitudes."

One list adminstrator contacted declined the offer to help. The Minnesota Northfield Linux Users Group administrator said, "I turned him down. There are a number of reasons why, but they mostly boil down to this: There is no incentive for us to give Microsoft our time and advice. They could never reciprocate. They're not interested in making the computing world better, they're only interested in making their next quarter revenues. That's fine, I'm not anti-business. But business is business and freedom is freedom; they want free beer and I want free speech. I have definite goals in using Linux and helping someone whose bosses (for example) fund SCO (to) contradict that."

Surkan sent out another survey request to, for example, the Greater Seattle Linux User's Group (SLUG). The survey asked, it is said, "Why do you like Linux?". The covering text said, "I think there is a lot my company (Microsoft) can learn from open source and Linux to make better solutions for our customers. I am collecting information for writing a report with recommendations to send to our management."

Other survey questions are, "What best describes your Linux knowledge level?" and , "List the top one or two improvements that you would like to see made to Linux."

Although there was conjecture that this was a highly elaborate Christmas spoof, Microsoft confirmed Surkan's bona fides by issuing a statement. This supported its manager: "Michael Surkan's survey is part of the market research that Microsoft often conducts to better understand customer preferences and to enhance its products."

What is amazing here, if these mails are true and not a spoof (and Microsoft's statement appears to confirm the mails are genuine) is the sheer bureaucratic stupidity of the exercise. After five years of Linux gaining sales (and, no doubt, MS engineers poring over Linux in its labs) and with Microsoft customers telling the company why they resent paying high prices for flaky software, Microsoft is now running this exercise. Or, bizarrly, a lone Microsoft employee is running it. How weird is that?

What does MIcrosoft need to find out? Perhaps it doesn't know that Linux is free? Perhaps it doesn't know that Linux is more secure than Windows? Perhaps Michael Surkan has not spoken to Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's CEO, who has trashed Linux loud, long and hard in recent months. Could it be that Steve 'the voice' Ballmer. doesn't know what he's talking about - because Michael's survey results are not in yet?

But Steve B has been parachuted in to Munich to tell that city council that its Linux choice was wrong and that what German city authorities need is Windows. What can be going on with senior big cheese right arm not knowing what micro-cheese left arm has been doing?

Perhaps Bill Gates has talked to Tony Blair and Microsoft is at this very moment attempting to have a Big Conversation(TM)* with Linux users.

[* trademark New Labour.]