Creative IT departments should use Windows not open source, says Microsoft, warning that Linux will become a tool of the grey consultants.

The Redmond-based company is aware that it is losing the PR war to Open Source software and has stepped up its efforts to woo enterprise users. The company has challenged the assumption that Linux is the natural successor to proprietary Unix systems. But it admits that a major plus point for Linux has been the community ethos of Open Source.

To counter this, Microsoft is now aiming to build a"community" round Windows products, although it's unclear how it hopes to achieve this. The company also intends to push Windows as a platform that gives IT managers more power, as compared with traditional, consultancy-led IT projects.

Microsoft may dominate the desktop but in the data centre both Windows and Linux are outsider operating systems. The move to commodity platforms creates opportunities for both. "In general we are not seeing a move from Windows to Linux but more of a move from Unix on RISC to 'something' on Intel," said Bradley Tipp, Microsoft's national systems engineer in the UK, speaking at IT Forum, Microsoft's enterprise-focused event for IT managers. "They want to move to the best platform with the best price/performance."

It is natural for Unix users to go to the very similar Linux operating system, but Microsoft will argue against this in a new module of its Operational Excellence programme, which advises users on server consolidation and migration. "[Users] going from Unix to Linux are actually moving to a less capable platform," said Tipp. "Linux has not reached the capability of Solaris."

The message is that the Linux adopted by enterprise IT managers is actually more commercial and Microsoft products more creative, than their respective images would suggest. "We see Linux distributions coalescing and becoming much more commercial," said Tipp. "They are moving to a much more standard software model." Users adopting Linux in the data centre are on support contracts and tied to one vendor's software distribution system and may be locked further into a traditional consultancy-based data centre. Novell's purchase of SUSE is one instance of this.

The fact that Novell's SuSE purchase was partly underwritten by IBM lends credence to Microsoft comments that much of the growth in Linux in data centres will be in projects led by consultancy groups, such as IBM Global Services, some way away from the user-empowered open source model. (Also, the fact that IT managers rely on support from commercial Linux vendors at one remove from the source is the heart of Microsoft's "Days of risk" argument that it catches vulnerabilities faster than open source vendors.)

Meanwhile, Microsoft is in the midst of an effort to (re)learn the benefits of community from the open source world. "In the days of DOS we had shareware and things on bulletin boards. Microsoft is re-inventing in that area" said Thomas Lee, a Microsoft "Regional Director", ie someone not employed by Microsoft (he is chief technologist at QA Training) but who provides a "link with the developer community".

Efforts will include Microsoft hosting user group meetings. "We are making our offices available," said Tony Poll, technical services manager for user groups, Microsoft UK & EMEA. "It is more than just offering free tea and pizza."

Windows gives users the choice of J2EE and .Net development, said Tipp, while non-Windows platforms could lock users into J2EE. The open source community is working on the MonoProject, an open source implementation of the .Net development framework of course, which Tipp said that Microsoft "tolerated".

"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," said Tipp, something the open source community could say in return.

Microsoft could perhaps offer applications for Linux desktops, as it does for the Mac, said Tipp. However, most Linux desktop users prefer free software such as Star Office, so the market would be uncertain. The idea of offering Microsoft applications on Linux servers met with a "very clear no", as the server interface is so different.

This indicates how far apart the Microsoft ethos is from that of Linux. The Open Source community has a very clear enemy in mind. Microsoft's attempts to coalesce its own 'community' against a common foe seems like wishful thinking, more reminiscent of the child who wants to be loved by everyone, than that of the clear leader in the desktop software market.