Ballmer: Microsoft Losing More Than Winning Against Linux

Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer was on good form during a Q&A session with an audience at a Gartner Symposium in Florida yesterday, having the audience in stitches on more than one occasion, as well as coming out with the kind of marketing speak wont to baffle and enlighten in equal measure.

Asked for his thoughts on the fact that when it comes to platform migrations, more people are moving from Unix to Linux than from Unix to Windows, he conceded that: "We’re not winning more than we’re losing." Which is a roundabout way of conceding that it’s losing to Linux more often than winning.

In the context of people considering a migration of their Unix applications, which is what Ballmer was talking about, that’s not surprising: there’s a hell of a lot more work needed to migrate Unix applications to Windows (if they can affordably be ported at all) than it is to migrate them to Linux.

Ballmer said that Microsoft wins only around 25% of Unix application migration deals that it competes for, but of course there’s surely a huge number of migration deals where Microsoft would not be asked to turn up and compete.

Ballmer also had the grace to concede that Microsoft cannot claim that it has a better (Unix) operating system than Linux: "The day I come in front of a Gartner audience and say I have a better Unix than Linux, that’ll be a good day," he said, adding, "We’re not quite there yet." It’s not entirely clear whether Ballmer means simply that Windows Server is not as good as Linux, or more likely, that it’s not as good as Linux when it comes to Unix-like features, functionality and application support.

That question also harks back to the issue of just how Unix-like Windows Server is, and even the age-old rumour that Windows Server was actually based on Unix in the first place. It wasn’t. The first version of Windows NT came about when Digital Equipment Corp (DEC) engineer Dave Cutler started work on an operating system to replace DEC’s VMS.

Cutler called the project ‘Mica’, but for some reason DEC had second thoughts and dropped the idea. Microsoft hired Cutler, who immediately started work on what would become Windows NT. DEC sued because it believed Cutler had put Mica or even VMS code in NT, and Microsoft eventually paid up $150m. As part of the settlement Microsoft agreed that Windows NT and its BackOffice applications would offer support for DEC’s Alpha processor, which is why DEC Alpha was the only RISC chip that supported both Digital’s version of Unix and Windows NT – quite a coup for DEC.

To cut a long story short, Windows has more in common with DEC VMS than Unix, and it is certainly not ‘based on’ Unix. VMS wasn’t ‘based on’ Unix either – it was designed initially to run on DEC’s proprietary VAX architecture, and was largely written in VAX assembly code, though it later had a Unix compatibility layer added to become OpenVMS.

The point is, Windows Server is not very Unix-like, which is one of the major reasons Microsoft only wins 25% of the Unix application migration deals it competes for, another being the attraction of Linux’s low up-front purchasing cost (the question of the ongoing total cost of ownership is quite another matter, but I won’t get into that here).

Nevertheless, Ballmer insisted that Windows should be able to win business away from Linux. He sees "big opportunities" for Microsoft to take business from Linux, including the lure of its high-performance clusters – currently a Linux stronghold representing about 20% of all Linux systems – and also the combination of its Visual Studio and ASP .NET as making Windows more attractive as a web hosting platform.

Ballmer said Microsoft has had a lot of interest in Windows clustering and already seen some success in web hosting migrations.

Away from the whole Linux-Windows-Unix debate, Ballmer was yet more bullish, saying Microsoft would beat Google in search technology by out-innovating generally, but specifically out-innovating Google when it comes to serving business users who want more consistent and effective search technology both within and beyond their company’s four walls. He was dismissive of what Google may have up its own sleeve, saying: "If you believe what you read in the papers today, then other than curing cancer, Google will do everything."

He got his biggest laugh by being derogatory about Microsoft’s own products, asking: "Anybody ever get a message that says something like [adopts silly, booming voice]: ‘An error has occurred, do you wish to send to Microsoft? Yes or No’. Anybody ever seen that message? Statistically, anybody who didn’t put their hand up is misrepresenting the facts!"

But he said Microsoft is not embarrassed about such messages, because it uses them to gather statistics on the experience of those using its products so it can fix the problems faster. He said the company nevertheless wants to move from this kind of ‘crash analysis’ towards systems that are more resilient in the first place. Some of this work should get done in the next version of Windows Server, code-named Longhorn Server and possibly due out next year, though that’s by no means certain.

Ballmer said the company wants to get the most important new features for its products in more regular product updates, saying, “We can’t make customers wait three to four years for things they need every few months.”

Finally Ballmer was greeted with ironic laughter after the discussion moderator had asked how Microsoft plans not only to keep up with the competition, but "trounce" it. "We don’t trounce our competition, we compete with the competition," retorted Ballmer mischievously.

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