"We are not anti-open source," says Martin Taylor, Microsoft's general manager of competitive strategy. In fact, he makes a point of hiring people with Linux and open source skills for his R&D team and Linux lab.
Earlier this year, for example, he hired Daniel Robbins, former chief architect of the Gentoo distribution of Linux. His team is also trying to "forge good partnerships" with open source suppliers, such as Microsoft's recent deal with JBoss. Taylor has even given an interview to Linux developers website Slashdot.
Of course, he is not promoting Linux. Taylor is making the effort to "know his enemy", and find its weak points. He talks to customers about why they might choose open source instead of Microsoft software, tests the main scenarios in the lab, and gets Microsoft's programmers or partners to try to fix the deficiencies.
Examples include making it easier to set up a Windows web server, and high-performance computing, where Taylor admits Microsoft has not done a good enough job.
But there is another aspect: trying to harness the power of open source as "an alternative development model". JBoss, for example, has an open source ideology, but Taylor wants to find ways to optimise JBoss for Windows. "[JBoss CEO] Marc Fleury says half his customers are on Windows, and financially, he does better out of them," says Taylor.
"People like to pit this as an either/or binary choice between open source and Windows. But if you look at the projects on SourceForge [an open source developers website], an astonishing number are on Windows."
One of Windows' main attractions is its ability to run tens of thousands of programs, the vast majority of which have been developed outside Microsoft. The company does not want to see tens of thousands of programs that do not run on Windows, even if some of them compete with Microsoft products.
But that is not the future. Taylor quotes his boss, Steve Ballmer, talking about Microsoft winning on the desktop and on the server: the next task is to win on the web.
"We are talking about delivering software as a service: how do we deliver value from the cloud? This is not the hosted, or ASP, model, it is delivering a set of services that people might want to use," he says.
Examples include the FrontBridge anti-spam and mail management service, which Microsoft has bought, and the Windows Update patching service.
"Internally, we have got a strategy for all of our products of how we deliver value to customers via the cloud. Stage two is how we monetise that value," says Taylor. "If we are number one on delivering that value and delivering customer satisfaction, that is a good definition of winning."
l Jack Schofield is computer editor at The Guardian
This was first published in October 2005