Some say that Microsoft is picking off the weakest Linux distros first, and that the Xandros and Linspire deals are part of that strategy. But this is a Linux-centric point of view, and to call those products two distros is to misunderstand them, their market and what Microsoft is doing.
Linspire and Xandros are not distros so much as bridge products, and their customers are not Linux users as such, but Microsoft users who see uses for Linux, want to try it out, and want to keep their Microsoft options open. Microsoft is aiming at this market because it wants to remain a player in the computing environments of the future, which will involve multiple operating systems and interoperability. Although they hold many thousands of SUSE coupons, Microsoft is not really interested in expanding the Linux market; they want to be in charge of the Linux at their customer sites.
Linspire and Xandros have built their businesses upon this bridge idea, and they are not alone (think of the CodeWeavers products). Hardcore Linux users will use virtualization software (such as VMware) to run Windows atop their Linux systems; less technical and more Microsoft-dependent users look to the bridge products we are discussing.
These customers are interested in productivity. The hacking part of open source is lost on them. Their practical reasons for mixing Windows and Linux may involve dealing with outside customers who send data in Microsoft-centric formats (and there will be more of that coming, with Vista). They may want to use dictation software such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking, and they may even be seeking freedom from Microsoft DRM restrictions.
Microsoft is capable of adapting. Bill Gates suddenly discovered the Internet in 1995, turned Microsoft in that direction and re-issued his 1995 book, The Way Ahead, in a "Completely Revised and Up-to-Date" edition the following year. Steve Ballmer has alternated the tone of his Linux name-calling:
as he focuses in on the best way to deal with the Linux threat. Microsoft's current answer is intimidation and adaptation.
On the intimidation side, Microsoft uses its patent-suit threats and deals with Linux companies so that users will perceive it as rolling across Linux companies like Cesare Borgia across Italy. Despite the denials from Novell and Xandros that Linux does not violate Microsoft patents, their accepting a promised immunity from Microsoft patent suits makes them appear to be wearing Microsoft collars and chains. It is accurate to say that hard-core Linux fans despise them.
But ordinary users just want to get the job done. They dread installing a Linux system and then having to find all the parts to make it do multimedia. They want the system to look (God help us!) like Windows. If open source developers of office suites had spent their effort on making a clone of Microsoft Office, down to the bugs and the stupidities, it would have had mass acceptance. But open source developers could not accept the idea. Virtues aside, familiar products sell. When Richard Stallman boasts, "My user interface [GNU Emacs, of course] hasn't changed in twenty years [and he said this a long time ago]," every user who spends his days at a keyboard envies him. People who have Word ingrained in their fingertips hate the changes that Microsoft makes to the UI in every new release -- menus that hide choices, for instance, or the new Vista ribbon.
The desktop is a large market. Microsoft currently rules it, but they do not want to see Linux take it over. They are willing to share on the edges, rather than be forced out completely. No, they will not fight fair, but they will evolve, or fail to survive. Watch the evolution.
This was first published in July 2007