Martin Taylor recently marked his one-year anniversary as Microsoft's chief Linux strategist. Taylor, whose official title is general manager of platform strategy, recently spoke with Computerworld about his first year in that job. This is part 1 of that interview. Also see the link below for Techworld's interview with Microsoft's Nick McGrath.

What are some of the lessons you have learned?
A year ago, we had a pretty direct strategy. We really [wanted] to go dial down the emotion, dial down the rhetoric, have a more fact-oriented approach and dial up the pragmatic analysis of solutions. ... 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 [total cost of ownership]."

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?
The surprising thing, a little bit, is how predictable our conversations are now with customers. ... 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." That's weighing into decisions more and more. ... Customers began introducing it and asking me about it more than I was introducing it to them. 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 commercialisation of Linux ... 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 see [people saying], "Oh well. We didn't pay for it anyway, 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]. They've not really laid out a great road map on how you get from where you are today to everything on SuSE. I do think they have the biggest opportunity to have the stack-for-stack comparisons to Microsoft from a technology perspective.

So I do think that they are going to outpace Red Hat as the preferred Linux distribution. ... [Now] I think Red Hat still has a bit of the dominant mind share on new Linux installations as Novell gets their act together.

So you think, 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 customised 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. We're already beginning to see some of that with how they're taking snapshots of the kernel, where the kernel is and putting it into their distributions.

Where do you see IBM fitting into the competitive picture?
I think that they're going to continue to take advantage of a services opportunity on the complexities in the Linux environment and say, "Hey, because of our global services business, we can cobble things together and try to veil that for the customer and deliver solutions." I think that they will continue to look for ways to get an advantage from their hardware platforms, and then I think their tougher challenge actually will be their commercial application set and how they tune that for different Linux distributions. I think as Red Hat moves up their stack, as Novell continues to move up and build out their stack, IBM will be forced to compete with those guys because they won't have as much control of the kernel, of the [Linux distribution]. I mean, Red Hat can do stuff to their [distribution] that IBM doesn't get a vote on. [It's] the same thing with Novell, in some ways, even though IBM has a financial stake in some of the Novell stuff with SuSE.

So I think that over time it's going to be tough for them to really figure out how they really tighten up or tune in their application business on top of it. Customers want commercialised [distributions]. So IBM's going to be even more beholden to Red Hat and to Novell to do things in that [distribution] for their application stack to work effectively.

I don't completely see the road map for IBM. In some ways, I don't think IBM completely sees the long-term road map for their Linux embracement, which is the reason why maybe they haven't stepped up to indemnify Linux in the way that HP has and some of the ways that Novell has and Red Hat has. They've really just stayed on the sideline and left their customers to sit there on indemnification and some other things.

Microsoft commissioned analyst firms to do reports to help you "get out the facts" about Linux. Are you still doing that?
If someone says, "Hey, Customer X says, 'If I had this data, it will help me make a decision, comparing Microsoft to Linux.'" And I basically hop on the phone with all the folks [at the analyst firms] and say, "Hey, I talked to four or five customers in the last two months, and they all care about x versus y. It's something that I think people care about. Can you guys go do something?" And sometimes they come back and say, "Yup. We've heard that, too. We're going to go do some analysis." Or, they come back and say, "Actually, it's not that interesting to us, but if you care about it, we'll use our methodology and stand behind it, but you have to fund it, because it costs money to get the samples, get the customers, get everything."

That's going to continue to be my process. 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.

Do you have any lined up for the future?
They're going to continue to be around the scenarios that customers say are important - TCO, security and reliability.