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Microsoft Studies Linux

Microsoft has a new tactic in its war against Linux and open source software (OSS).

Michael Surkan, a program manager in Microsoft's networking group, is contacting members of Linux user groups about two surveys (one for home users, the other for work users).

Recipients are asked to rate 25 commonly given reasons for using Linux, including "ease of installation," "reliability" and "the satisfaction of not giving Microsoft more money." They are also asked to suggest improvements for both operating systems.

A spokesperson for the Redmond, Wash., company was not immediately available. But in a statement issued by its public relations firm, it said, "Michael Surkan's survey is part of the market research that Microsoft often conducts to better understand customer preferences and to enhance its products."

Microsoft's move was first reported by NewsForge, an open source news outlet.

The software vendor has taken some steps down the open source path. In 2001, it launched its Shared Source Initiative, which makes some source code available to certain customers, partners, researchers, governments and academicians.

Then last November, Microsoft said it would offer royalty-free licensing for its Extensible Markup Language schemas in Office 2003 versions of Word, Excel and its InfoPath back-end, information-gathering programs.

There are three reasons why the survey, might not help much. First, many members of the open source community will refuse to answer because they don't want to help Microsoft.

"It would have made me uncomfortable to respond," said Sam Hiser, a consultant with Hiser Adelstein & Assoc. and marketing lead for the Open Office Project, the open source group that distributes a free office productivity suite. "It will give them very valuable information and make them more competitive if they use the information."

Second, any thoughtful answers to the actual questions may be lost in a blizzard of bitter tirades about the company's tactics.

Finally, Microsoft won't be able to learn from OSS because of its very business model. "You have to open your software if you really want to get it," Hiser said.

Microsoft has tried to reach out to Linux users before. In July 2001, it surveyed developers, administrators and technology strategists in the United States, Europe and Japan to gauge their perceptions of open source, Linux, Shared Source, and the GPL .

A key finding of that survey, according to Eric Raymond, president of the Open Source Initiative, who obtained an internal copy of the results, was that anti-OSS statements by Microsoft backfired.

On the other hand, according to survey's executive summary, the company's positive statements, whether about its own Shared Source project or about OSS, Linux and GNN in general, were effective. In other words, Microsoft's us-against-them messaging served only to push "them" away.

Do these Linux user surveys, then, herald a more open Microsoft? Probably not in the short term, Raymond said. He believes that this is another skirmish in an internal battle that's raged in Microsoft for years, a struggle between those wanting the company to move toward Web-centric openness and those who want to preserve control over Windows.

"My take is that this was written by someone at Microsoft who already has a pretty good idea what the responses will be," Raymond said, "but who wants to have the statistics to take back to upper management and say, 'See? See? I told you so.' "