When Microsoft's global head of platform strategy (a job title otherwise known as Chief Linux Slayer) says he wants the company to embrace open source, you could be forgiven for wondering if he is perhaps tiring of the executive life, and trying to get himself dismissed from his post.
But in fact this is Microsoft's latest approach to the niggling challenge (opportunity?) presented by Linux and open source software: public humility.
Call him what you want, but Martin Taylor says the approach is working, and that it is one of the reasons the debate raging around Linux vs. Microsoft is probably quieter today than it was two years ago. Whether you accept that the debate has lost any of its fire is another question entirely.
Looking back, Taylor says that in the past Microsoft has been "a bit emotional" in its response to Linux and open source, but that this was because it didn't really understand:
"So we hired some Linux people to, among other things, give us a connection to the OS community. We'd rather embrace open source, because we'd rather see open source applications running on Windows than running on Linux," he explains. "And when people don't choose Microsoft, we want to know why."
Brian Green, who labours under the job title "director of solutions management" at Novell, says he finds it "really interesting" that Microsoft is learning about Linux. "But remember, to really maintain that connection with the open source community, you have to contribute code," he notes.
Still, Taylor says the Microsoft message about total cost of ownership is getting through, and that companies running Linux are beginning to re-evaluate their decisions.
"People engage with Linux for a reason, whether it be a philosophical one, or just about saving money," Taylor says. "But now we are seeing lots of people saying "Is this the ROI (return on investment) or function that we were expecting?" The software works, but it takes people and resources to run. More people are having that thought."
Novell's Green conceded that some people are indeed moving from Linux to Windows, and acknowledges that very few people are migrating their desktops from XPSP2 to Linux. But adds that in the enterprise market, plenty of people are still migrating to Linux, from a variety of platforms.
"Linux is still the fastest growing operating system. Microsoft is still growing too, but Linux is winning in a lot of the areas that Microsoft really wanted to get into, such as data centres," he notes. "More generally, where the migration is from Unix to Linux, is probably where Linux is hurting Microsoft the most."
Both Green and Taylor agree that what enterprises want is managed, supported solutions. Naturally, they disagree about what this actually means in practice.
"With Linux there is a trade off: support for a managed distribution, or go it alone and do it yourself," says Taylor.
He says that no company can support an infinite number of configurations, and that arguably, Microsoft is better placed to support its own code than either Novell or Red Hat is to support Linux, because it actually wrote it all.
In addition, as Novell and RedHat work to differentiate themselves from each other, each will add packages on top of the Linux distribution, some of them might even be based on proprietary code. "Linux won't be Linux anymore," he says.
But Green sees it differently. "There are those businesses that want the total flexibility of Fedora, or the OpenSUSE distribution. But most enterprises want support so that they can manage their risk.
"Very few would modify the code just because they could, and if they did, they'd do it hand in hand with the vendor. That modified code often goes back into the project."
At the end of our conversation with Green, he quipped: "As far as Microsoft's defensive posture towards Linux goes, long may it continue. It's great publicity for Linux."
In the interests of fairness, we'll leave you with a thought from Microsoft's Taylor: "Hopefully we are not above learning. We didn't give people as much access to our code three years ago as we do now. We are trying to be more transparent and to understand our customers more. MS needs to learn if it is to grow and evolve." ®