Has Microsoft's attitude to open source software changed in recent months or years? Does Microsoft think should be using elements of that model itself? And how does the software giant view itself? To get answers to these questions and more, we asked Microsoft's head of platform strategy Nick McGrath, whose job is to market Microsoft's platform of technologies, for his views.
Q: What do you do and how has the job changed since you started doing it?
A: Ive been with Microsoft for 12 years, originally joining as an applications engineer. My role as head of platform strategy, a newly-created position, started at the end of 2003. So it hasnt changed much yet! My role is to explain Microsofts position in the evolving software environment. In particular, it is prove the value of the Microsoft Platform in comparison to open source software.
Q: What is your analysis of what makes Linux and open source software so attractive to the enterprise market?
A: Without a doubt it is the misguided perception that Linux is free. That is not the case, of course, it costs time and money to build a Linux-based system and more to maintain it.
Changing that perception is not in many companies interest. Indeed there are a whole host of commercial software companies interested in getting Linux into the enterprise so that they can then sell their Linux-oriented services and solutions.
However, in recognition of this, more and more end-user organisations are viewing Linux vendors like any other vendor and applying a total cost of ownership model when evaluating Linux. The Microsoft platform comes out favourably in these comparisons, as many industry analyst studies prove.
Q: What's Microsoft's current position vis-à-vis Linux in the enterprise?
A: Linux on the desktop is mainly at trial stage. The feedback from end-users is that they need ease of deployment, good security and compatibility between applications. These are all areas in which Microsoft XP is very well placed when compared to Linux.
Emotionally I think there is a Microsoft vs Linux view, in which Linux is perceived as a defenceless, vulnerable platform that is free to use. This is quite simply not the case. Linux is backed by a raft of commercially-minded organisations that aim to profit from supplying Linux-based software and services. Furthermore, Linux is not a cheaper platform. Time and again, independent total cost of ownership studies show the Microsoft platform is more cost-effective.
The job I do is about helping companies assess Microsoft and Linux platforms from a level playing field. This is already happening, but I want to ensure that the trend continues.
Q: What can Microsoft learn from the GPL - free, open source software - movement?
A: Microsoft has already learnt a great deal from the open source community. Open source development is an important part of the software ecosystem. It aids community-building, customer feedback, code-transparency and custom-application development. In a number of ways, such as the Shared Source Initiative, Microsoft is trying to blend the best of the commercial and open source software development models.
Q: Can software development be driven by enthusiasm as opposed to profit? If so, why isn't Microsoft doing more of it and, if not, to what would you attribute the success of a number of Linux-based vendors?
A: Enthusiasm is absolutely key to software development but it's only one part of it. It also needs significant and sustained investment, an adherence to an overarching software strategy and a commitment to integration. Perhaps most important, it needs to be accessible and easy for end-users. These other pillars of software development are provided by commercial companies. As Linux matures it is increasingly reliant upon profit-minded companies, as demonstrated by the likes of Red Hat, IBM and Novell.
Q: Will we see more, and more significant, open source moves from Microsoft? If so, can you hazard what they might be?
A: The Microsoft Shared Source Initiative has been actively making source code available to customers, and constituent communities, for the last three years and it has over one million participants. There are a number of examples and scenarios where an open source approach is a positive benefit to Microsoft and, where appropriate, there will be additional source-access programs.
But lets be clear, Microsoft is a company structured on the commercial software model. We firmly believe that it is the best way to ensure our platform and products are the best overall choice in terms of value, integration, interoperability and support, without complexity or added dependency on services.
Q: At the moment, analysts report that Windows is cheaper to run than Linux because of a shallower learning curve and greater access to expertise. How long, would you forecast, can this remain the situation?
A: It is true that the analyst community regards the Microsoft platform as more cost-effective than Linux, but for more reasons than just a shallow learning curve and access to expertise expertise, by the way, that Microsoft has put a lot of effort into building up through all sorts of partner initiatives.
According to the analysts, software acquisition is only around five per cent of the total IT cost. A complete analysis of the whole lifetime costs of IT systems (Total Cost of Ownership, TCO) is the only fair way to measure total software costs and in many studies Microsofts software has been found to have a lower TCO than Open Source software.
Q: To what extent do the UK and European markets differ from the US in respect of Microsoft in competition with Linux?
A: There has been a lot of talk around Microsoft and Linux in the UK and European markets, as well as the US, and while the discussion has shifted, since it began, it is fundamentally the same in all of these markets. Overall, weve seen the industry discussion evolve from emotion, to technology, to its current focus on how business and customer value is delivered.
The Linux phenomenon has changed face now resembling a more commercially-driven technology. We see customers now beginning to look at Linux vendors like any other commercial software provider focusing on the overall business advantage, value for money and risk associated with making long-term technology investments with such vendors.
Our products are engineered to be familiar and easy to use, support a broad choice of applications, with an emphasis on security, reliability and interoperability all at a lower total cost of ownership. We are designing technology that delivers value "out of the box" to meet customer needs. These are all benefits that partners and customers tell us are a compelling reason to move to, and stay with, the Windows Platform.
Q: Are EU regulations likely to play a bigger part in influencing Microsoft's strategy in future and, if so, how?
A: All regulations, EU or otherwise, have an influence on every companys business planning. Like all companies, Microsoft will discuss, lobby and react to regulators and legislation as part of everyday business life.
Q: What role do you see virtualisation playing in the future?
A: Virtualisation will play a key role for Microsoft and our customers in the future. It is a core deliverable in Microsofts Dynamic Systems Initiative (DSI) which is an industry initiative to enhance Windows and deliver both a platform and a co-ordinated set of solutions that dramatically simplifies and automates the way customers develop, deploy and operate distributed systems. By embedding knowledge of the system at design time, and flowing that knowledge through the entire lifecycle of the system, we can create solutions that result in reduced costs, improved reliability and increased responsiveness across the entire IT lifecycle.
Q: The environment in which Microsoft operates is way different from what it was 10 years ago, never mind 15 or 20 years ago. How well do you think Microsoft has lived up the promises it made, both to itself and to the world, over the last 10 years?
A: The world, let alone the technology industries, has changed tremendously over the last 10-20 years. There was a time when Microsoft envisaged a PC in every home. It was a revolutionary vision at the time but sounds antiquated now. Since Microsoft was founded, the intention has been to create top quality technology and applications that people and organisations saw the value of using. In that, I think weve been very successful.