Microsoft exec dissects Linux's 'weak value proposition'
By Scott Berinato, PC Week Online
March 4, 1999 3:37 PM ET
REDMOND, Wash. -- Think of it as a burst of cold Redmond rain on the
In a far-reaching interview this week with PC Week Online, Microsoft
Corp. group product manager Ed Muth sounded off on the open-source
operating system, outlining what he considers are fundamental flaws
with the Linux business model and the OS itself.
"I see it as more of a threat to Unix. Linux is a challenge, a
competitor," Muth said. "The more I study Linux, the weaker I think
the value proposition is to consumers."
Muth delineated two main technical reasons why he believes Linux will
not succeed with corporate customers.
First, a broad base of support for applications -- especially
off-the-shelf, shrink-wrapped applications -- is necessary for a
modern operating system, he said.
"Thirty years ago, everything was custom, and the trend for the last
three decades has been to make more software off-the-shelf," Muth
said. A "design-by-community" ethos will not work in corporations, he
said, where even highly customized applications such as ERP systems
include much shrink-wrapped technology.
The second failing, Muth believes, is a low level of integration
between the OS and its applications.
It's a point that touches on ground where holy wars are fought.
Indeed, some Linux advocates say Linux's small footprint, efficient
code and lack of integration with surrounding technology is what
makes it appealing. Muth disagrees.
"People want more integration," he said. "They want to take a bar
chart from Excel and put it in Word. On the server side they want
strong queuing and security. This is all done through integration.
Linux has a low degree of integration. Linux is basically a big step
backward for those two reasons plus others."
Economies of scale
Muth next turned to the economics of Linux. He said his preliminary
cost analysis showed Linux actually costs end users more than Windows
"We have very little concern we can't compete with Linux on a TCO
level," Muth said. "We think the total cost of ownership of NT is
lower than Linux, but it's still hard to do good TCO studies because
at the moment they're hard to compare since Linux supports so few
"Let's say, for discussion, they are equally scalable," he said. "And
let's assume applications are available for both, and setup time is
the same. Given all these factors as equal, the best you could hope
for is about the same cost per transaction between servers."
But Muth turned that argument on its ear.
"The problem with that is there are fewer applications available for
Linux, there's no long-term development road map, and there's a
higher technical risk in using it," he said. "You could cut Linux
some slack if it were sharply lower in cost per transaction than NT,
but that's not the case."
Acknowledging the phenomenon
Muth did acknowledge the myriad forces that have propelled Linux into
the spotlight, to the point that the OS was even featured recently in
the New York Times Sunday Magazine.
Moreover, the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo this week was populated
by major enterprise vendors, including IBM, Hewlett-Packard Co.,
Compaq Computer Corp. and Computer Associates International Inc.
Muth attributed the open-source hype to a number of factors,
including a lack of fairness in media coverage of Linux.
"We're all in the business of wanting the customer to have the
information needed to make informed choices," Muth said. "We haven't
seen a flavor of Linux coverage that addresses that. Some
criticalness is needed."
For example, "some people say positive things about Linux when their
message is anti-Microsoft," he said. "But I wonder, in 36 months is
this the next [Network Computer] or is it a viable OS? We don't see
people question the Linux numbers."
Indeed, those numbers have been startling. International Data Corp.
attributed 17 percent of server OS shipments in 1998 to Linux, a 212
percent growth year over year. The Linux user community itself has
been pegged at between 7 and 12 million.
But Muth pointed out that it's hard to track shipments of an
open-source platform and its applications when they can be downloaded
for free from any number of Web sites.
"We feel that 2 to 20 percent of Linux shipments turn out to be
'shelfware,'" he said. "From what we can tell, real-world deployments
of Linux are very thin."
As for the vendor support at LinuxWorld, Muth wasn't surprised,
adding that the media needs to apply the same critical eye to this
"Take HP," he said. "They have long supported multiple OSes on X86.
They are fundamentally in the hardware business. You would expect
them to support Linux. But the deep investment is in NT. It's a human
investment -- developers, support... You have to separate out what OS
they will install if you ask them and what investments they make."
But Muth's most passionate argument came on the development front,
where he said capitalism is the wild card that many observers have
"I find it hard to believe that some of the best computer scientists
in the world will want to do their work for free," he said. "Without
a long-term technical road map, without multimillion-dollar test
labs, someone wants me to believe these visionary programmers and
developers will want to do the best work of their lives and then give
it away. I do not believe in that vision of the future."
But hey, it's competition
For all its shortcomings, Linux is part of a larger competitive
landscape in the server realm, Muth said.
"In the OS market, a fair person would see extraordinary
competition," he said. "And the competition exists in terms of
business model and channel model, and Linux is a very interesting
For Microsoft, that's key, since the question of whether it faces
real competition in the OS market has been a contentious issue in its
ongoing antitrust battle with the Department of Justice.
Microsoft has done well in server market share, Muth said, but "we
have lots of work to do in some parts of the market. Take the
$100,000 to $1 million server range. We have less than 15 percent of
"There is extraordinary competition," he reiterated. "The market is a
rich mosaic of parry and thrust from the vendors. We have to earn our
stripes every day. That's how it should be."