All About Linux 2008: Should Microsoft be afraid of Linux?

With kind regards to Penny-Arcade

Does Microsoft fear Linux? Should it fear Linux? Does it fear Linux only in certain sectors, like Web servers, and not others, like the desktop? What exactly does “fear” mean here? Why do I still watch Lost? All important questions that deserve highly developed answers. PBS attempted to answer some of these questions, but that was in 1998. A lot has changed since then. I, for example, now wear a size 11 shoe as opposed to a 7.

I tend to view Linux as two different animals, rightly or wrongly. There’s Linux for the desktop, like Ubuntu, Gentoo, Knoppix and whatever flavor-of-the-month distro gets mentioned on this week’s Tekzilla. (I actually like Tekzilla, being a former TechTV viewer.) The average person, the man or woman who uses the computer at work to create spreadsheets or to order paper, doesn’t know Linux from Adam. At least until this past week, that is. They skip along happily, clicking “start” at the beginning of every day. Desktop Linux, supposedly, is for these folks, and certain distros, most notably Ubuntu, offer an easy-to-use environment, no command line needed. But really, with a 0.65 percent market share, do you really think Microsoft is worried about losing out to Linux? Its biggest competitor is Mac OS X, and that’s still only on 7.5 percent of all computers.

Linux on the server, however, is a whole ‘nother matter. A quick trip to offers a glimpse of how Redmond feels about the free as in freedom OS. There’s all sorts of charts and graphs and mentions of total costs of ownership.

But is that enough to call Microsoft “afraid” of Linux?

Judging by what Microsoft told me yesterday, the company seems as cool as you like and doesn’t view Linux, desktop or otherwise, as any sort of legitimate threat. Hubris? Hardly.

We have always had a very healthy attitude toward competition, knowing that it is always good for customers…. and we are confident that Windows Vista is the platform to enhance the individual digital lives of people around the world…. Windows Vista is on track to be the fastest selling operating system in Microsoft’s history, also thanks to our strong partner ecosystem.

That’s what the company’s rapid response team (well, that’s the name I gave it) told me. Even controlling for PR spin, to me those don’t look like the words of someone’s who’s “afraid” of anything. And why should it? Even though Vista has been universally panned—and some of that may not be specifically Microsoft’s fault—sales of 100 million licenses indicates that, someone, somewhere still takes Microsoft and Windows seriously.

And Linux on the deskop—come on now, really? Yes, Devin’s comments in this week’s Unreasonable Stance were a little on the bombastic side, but his general skeptical tone of Linux “making it,” or however you want to phrase it, looks right to me. Fact is, most people use the OS that ships with their computer. People who bought a mid-range Dell will use Windows XP or Vista for the life of the computer. The incoming college student who got a MacBook for his high school graduation will use Leopard. Do we really think that for all our huffing and puffing about Linux being more secure, which I’m not even disputing, we’ll get the average user to switch over? Convincing your friends to use Firefox instead of IE is trivial compared to asking someone to move away from Windows. I remember when I told one of my relatives that I got a Mac (this was a few years ago) he replied with something like, “Oh what type of Windows does it have?”

The average I-use-computers-to-check-my-e-mail-and-CNN-every-morning user is content with Windows. Tell them to turn on the built-in firewall and not to click strange things and you’ve solved any number of problems right there. Education, not a knee-jerk “switch to Linux!” reaction to the security problem is the best solution.

Not that I don’t like Linux. My experience with the OS sorta mirrored Biggs’. I remember once my high school closed early because of a gas leak or something else equally unsafe. Rather than use the free day to “hang out” with my friends, I installed Red Hat 8 on some old POS Compaq we had. More recently, I’ve been playing around with gOS. If the Wi-Fi support was a little better (read: if it worked on my MacBook), I could see myself taking in-class notes using Google Docs just to stand out. But just because I enjoy screwing around with command line doesn’t mean I’m gonna turn around and tell my uncle to drop his Windows setup.

So, should Microsoft be afraid of Linux? I really doubt it. I honestly can’t see regular users switching away from Windows, pirated or otherwise, to Linux. On the server market, yes, there’s a little more competition, but that just means Microsoft will have to actually try to innovate and convince its customers that a Windows license is worth their while.