Microsoft Plays the Open Source Software Game

By Paul Rubens (Send Email)
Posted Apr 13, 2010


Microsoft has been busy these past few days reminding the world that it really is an organization of monstrous proportions and its tendrils reach from the humblest consumer desktop right up to the level of super-computing. Its message is clear: The company has no intention of giving up any of the markets in which it competes to open source operating systems like Linux -- at least not without the mother of all fights.

OS Roundup: Microsoft appears to have woken up to the fact that free open source Office clones may be the thin end of a very slippery wedge. Its response is loud and clear: When it comes to operating systems, Microsoft intends to be a formidable competitor for some time to come.

Perhaps provoked by Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth's pronouncement that "we want to put Ubuntu and free software on every single consumer PC that ships from a major manufacturer, the ultimate maverick move," Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) saw fit to shed some new light on Office Starter 2010, Ina Fried, over at CNet, reports. This free edition of its Office software -- which will not include PowerPoint but will have crippled versions of Excel and Word -- will be given away with consumer machines in an effort to poison the well for competing open source productivity suites like OpenOffice (which includes a PowerPoint-compatible presentation application and full-featured spreadsheet and word processing programs.)

Microsoft appears to have woken up to the fact that free open-source Office clones like OpenOffice may prove to be the thin end of a very slippery wedge, and if users discover they can get by with it instead of paying for a full version of Microsoft's Office, then the next step will be to switch to Ubuntu (or some other Linux) instead of paying for Windows. Far better to nip the whole thing in the bud by giving away Office -- albeit a cut down version with cheesy ads that rotate every 45 seconds -- for free, while dangling the chance to upgrade to a fuller featured version instantly (by purchasing an unlocking key) in front of frustrated users' noses.

Moving on up to the server room, Microsoft also announced some details of a forthcoming Service Pack 1 for its Microsoft Exchange 2010 messaging, calendaring and much-more-besides product on the Exchange Team blog. The service pack adds the ability to provision a user's Personal Archive to a different mailbox database from his primary mailbox, making it possible to implement separate storage strategies or tiered storage for less frequently accessed emails. The update will also allow improved multi-mailbox search and the creation of "retention policy tags" to help automate the deletion and archiving of data. This all comes down to the hot topic of ediscovery, which can cost large organizations millions if they are not fully geared up for it when hit by legal action. "Forget about Linux -- you'll be better prepared with Microsoft," is the message here.

What about the very high end of computing, where Linux is really dominant? Last week Microsoft also announced the beta 2 release of Windows HPC Server 2008 R2. A number of new features are up and running in the new beta that are aimed at deflating the Linux bubble. One is the ability to beef up the power of a cluster "for free" using machines that an organization might happen to have sitting around idly in the evenings or on weekends, SETI@home style (but without the nutty little-green-men association), as cluster compute nodes for any Windows 7 desktop.

And with a feature called HPC Services for Excel 2010, fiendishly complex Excel workbooks can now have their computations run at high speed on a cluster instead of relying on the power of the host machine's processor. The company is also hoping to make it easy, or at least easier, to build, debug and trace HPC applications using familiar tools in the shape of Visual Studio 2010, which is due to launch this week.

Added to all this is a bit of the old "if you can't beat them, join them" philosophy: With a nod of acknowledgement to Linux, Microsoft has teamed up with HPC management companies including Adaptive Computing, Clustercorp and Platform Computing, "to enable hybrid options (including dual boot and dynamic cluster) where Windows HPC Server and Linux work together."

By themselves, none of these announcements is hugely noteworthy, to be sure. But put them all together and there can be no mistake: Microsoft is telling the world that when it comes to operating systems big or small, it intends to be a formidable competitor for some time to come.

There can be only one reason for all this muscle flexing though. Linux is getting Microsoft increasingly rattled.

Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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