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MS, open source, The Facts and the fit-ups

We explain How It Works

Microsoft is now nearing the end of its "Get the Facts" UK roadshow on Open Source. and we at The Register think it's high time we looked at whether or not the company is getting value for its money, and indeed at the way it's spending that money. We've already produced a report of the London gig, but in order for you to understand How It Works we also need to give you an idea of what's also been going on under the covers.

The original notice of the tour is a good place to start, and take careful note of the wording. It is pitched as "an open and honest technology discussion" where you will hear "the facts on Linux and Open Source Software", where Microsoft will "open up this debate", and "share with you all the latest information we have, from all sides." You will be helped to "understand the open source issues", to "consider the platform issues — pros and cons", and you will be able to question "the platform and Linux technical experts."

Got all that? OK, now perform reality check number one. You've got the page for the seminar series in front of you, so just go to the MS Events homepage and try to search for the one you've just come from. Tricky, isn't it? Actually there don't seem to be any Linux events listed at all. So how did El Reg find it in the first place? That's our little secret, but it wouldn't be accurate to say that Microsoft specifically hid the seminar series.

Not entirely accurate, anyway, considering how weirdly primitive the MS UK Events search system seems to be. But obviously the Get the Facts tour was not designed to attract passing trade, as that would need publicity. Actually, it was designed by Microsoft for a specific target audience. We understand from various conversations with Microsoft's UK PR representatives (of which more anon), that the target audience consisted of Microsoft UK partners. Therefore (speculation hat ON) we can postulate a tour specifically designed to bolster support for Microsoft platforms and to foment doubt about Open Source among Microsoft's existing customer base. This is quite different from mounting an overtly evangelistic effort aimed at the generality of opinion, so although you might mistake it for an attacking campaign from its pre-publicity (such as it is), it's really far more likely to have been a defensive ploy by a worried company.

So compare and contrast. We have here a company putting its spin on the subject, using its own "Linux technical experts" (i.e. Philip Dawson of Meta Group), to an audience that is intended to have been carefully selected. How open and honest is that?

Further evidence of openness and honesty arrived the week before the London event. Microsoft organised a press conference in association with it, and The Register got a call from Red Hat's PR people saying European marketing VP Paul Salazar had volunteered the company's services for panel duty in order to make the event "a more genuine "open and honest technology discussion". Well, we said, that's very interesting, but it's not much of a story unless they refuse the offer.

But working on the basis that the likeliest outcome would be that Red Hat would not be present (it wasn't), but that nobody would end up holding categorical proof of a refusal by Microsoft (they haven't), we at The Register thought we'd try to nudge things along a little, and put in a couple of calls about both this and the press conference.

The press conference was organised for 3pm on the same day and at the same venue as the London event, but after the event itself. According to the invitation for the press conference, "Microsoft think it's about time to open up this debate" would like to invite journalists to "participate" in it. "Microsoft hopes to bring clarity and focus to the debate, ensuring that choosing between Open Source or proprietary software will be an informed decision, based purely upon merit." This was distributed to a large list of IT journalists, complete with the very list, it seeming that the PR had not altogether mastered BCC.

So first of all we asked about the timing. Given that the seminar was in the morning and the press conference right behind it, we'd quite like to attend the whole thing, so could we do that? Apparently not, said the agency PR — the morning event was for "end users and partners" and the afternoon one was for journalists.

Actually, The Register had already arranged for its own spies to be there in the morning, but there was a principle at stake here and we weren't taking no for an answer, so we got on the line to The Beast itself, and thought we'd deal with the Red Hat matter while we were about it. Initially we were told that space in the morning was limited, and that Microsoft had therefore opted to invite a couple who would be likelier than The Register to take "an impartial stance." We were however told that we'd be welcome to attend the Edinburgh event, where apparently there would be more space.

Rising above this slur on our integrity, and with a view to establishing The Facts, we emailed the Microsoft rep the following:

The situation, as far as I [John Lettice] can see, is as follows. I have said I am unable to come to London, but would like to send a reporter. You have said that you have a limited amount of space for press at the morning session, and have therefore opted to invite two you feel will take "an impartial stance."

My request for a reporter at the London morning session nevertheless stands, and I am willing to consider coming to the Edinburgh event, depending on date. You have said you will get back to me on that, but you have not, right?

The rep, knowing what we were up to, responded with a swift reversal:

Just want to reiterate that:

You had let us know you were unavailable to attend the London event so I invited you to Edinburgh. The reg have a staffer attending London press event.

There are several other media representatives at the AM event in London, yes including two nationals and some non-national IT specific titles. No journalists, including yourself are being barred from any events, in fact quite the opposite. If you can make it along on Thursday I would be glad to see you.

By voice, our spinmeister insisted that there was no way we were being barred, and as far as he was concerned we could bring the world and his dog along to the whole day. Which you'll note is substantially different from what we'd been told in the first place. And actually, the exchanges were a tad more heated than the above correspondence implies. Having rubbed along with the folk from Microsoft for years, and despite outward appearances having generally got on pretty well with them, we have a fair idea of where and when to press buttons and how to imply the imminence of the lead-filled sock. "Well, of course I understand what you mean, but if you let things stand as they are, how on earth do you think that's going to look in print? You know, you really don't have to hurt yourself in this way..." That kind of stuff.

In this case we'd suggested fairly strongly that the apparent suppression of willing speakers from the competition, together with the exclusion of non-tame journalists from an event apparently designed to brainwash existing Microsoft customers would not entirely aid Microsoft's case. We seem to recall using the words "crude propaganda fit-up".

This side of it is however largely academic. No sane journalist is going to spend a whole day listening to Microsoft droning on about Linux, so they're going to segment themselves anyway. And two related events designed for specific purposes are not going to have their purposes changed simply because The Reg stamps its feet about them.

So what we got, first of all, was a morning session where Microsoft addressed the "technical decision makers" by worrying away at its chosen attack points of cost, security, tools and usability, and an afternoon session where it pitched a similar but perhaps more ambitious line to the journalists.

The morning session was covered for us by sometime Register techmeister Mike Banahan of GBdirect, whose report is below. He found it pretty tame stuff, noting the arguments were relatively simplistic and primitive, and that The Facts seemed to be skewed towards the needs and costings of larger companies. This certainly makes some sense in that Microsoft obviously does not want to lose large accounts to open source, but scarcely equips the company to defend against insurrections at the low end.

Eddie Bleasdale of netproject was at the morning session but says he was excluded from the "press-only" one in the afternoon. A fair number of open source luminaries (Mike Banahan names the names) had infiltrated the audience in the morning, so it turned out to be the press session that was less balanced.

Bleasdale writes:

In this [the press] session they brought up the relative cost of ownership figures for Newham and claimed that Microsoft solutions offered better value for money.

Richard Steel, head of IT at Newham, the week after both KPMG (who were funded by Microsoft to produce a report detailing the benefits of a Microsoft only solution) and netproject gave the findings of our studies to Newham Council's IT committee. The findings in our report were accepted by the committee 'subject to negotiations with Microsoft'.

Richard Steel then went to Redmond and negotiated directly with Maggie Wilderotter, Senior Vice President, World Wide Public Sector and got an extremely favourable deal for the purchase of Microsoft software which also included a very large amount of free consultancy from Microsoft.

Microsoft are now claiming that for Newham Microsoft produces 'potentially double the productivity associated cost savings of an Open Source solution.' If this is the case then they are virtually giving the software to Newham.

So if anyone wants really low cost MS software — get us in to install a pilot Linux desktop project.

Bleasdale is right to pull Microsoft up for blatantly ignoring the facts on the ground in Newham, but this is by no means the first time it has done so. If you look here, towards the end of the piece you'll find a report of the very same Maggie Wilderotter pitching blatant untruths at CNET: "The local government body, in London in Great Britain, engaged an outside consultant to help direct long-range IT planning, and the decision went to Microsoft.

"'They looked at TCO (total cost of ownership), security and other issues, and based on a number of those factors, they chose Microsoft,' she said. 'It was very surprising to a lot of people they chose Microsoft, given the stance they'd taken before, but the facts were there.'"

Which, as Bleasdale makes clear, they were not. The consultants were engaged by Microsoft, and had Wilderotter herself not cut a very special deal the verdict would have gone to the non-Microsoft system. The Microsoft people involved in the latest series of seminars are also people who are in a position to know what really happened at Newham, so they have no more excuse for peddling this line than Wilderotter had when she talked to CNET. But why let The Facts get in the way of a good story, as the saying goes?

If you look at Microsoft's higher profile efforts at knocking open source you'll quite probably reckon that they're silly, but you'd be wrong to conclude that the effort is pointless. In addition to this particular tour Microsoft does a lot more work on the subject than you're likely to hear about, sponsoring and showing up at small events where its 'experts' claim an open and impartial stance and pitch pretty basic arguments. It won't make any difference to you if you know open source and free software, but the effect on a wider audience means it's probably money well spent. And the money spent on special discounts to stop accounts defecting to open source is also often money well spent, because the result can be presented as a win on merit, and if you say this often enough the press will print it and people will start to believe it.

But it's not The Facts. Not as we know them.

Mike Banahan's morning report

Up at the crack of dawn this morning to learn direct from Microsoft the truth about Open Source Software and Linux, in the first of a series of "20/20" seminars being run up and down the country. Today's the kick-off in London.

Around 140 people are milling around in the foyer before being led into the conference room where lights, music, videos and an oleaginous Master of Ceremonies kick things off. Whether the proceedings are going to alter the progress of free software in the UK isn't clear, but an enterprising terrorist with a small bomb certainly would — from suits to beards and most points in between, I spot dozens of the UK's best-known Linux proponents. The atmosphere of scepticism and cynicism from the audience is noticeable.

To give them credit, Microsoft do seem to have made some attempt to introduce a degree of independence to the programme, although none of the speakers are pro-Linux. A keynote talk from Philip Dawson of the Meta Group seems balanced enough (though Philip, SuSE does NOT rhyme with 'soothsay') was followed by Microsoft marketroids Nick Barley and Nick McGrath and then I'll spare you the details of the customer presentations since you can probably guess that none of them were from people who'd saved their employers millions by switching to Open Source solutions. Anthony Leaper from Siebel pulled off a coup by giving a polished 20-minute pitch for his company and didn't mention the L or O words once.

The Microsoft guys did cause some raised eyebrows when they toyed with sackcloth and ashes, admitting that perhaps they had made mistakes in the past by building systems that could have had a shade more security built-in to them and that recent upheavals to the licensing terms might have annoyed the odd customer or two.

The emerging themes were clear enough. The switch to Intel and Linux is causing more mayhem in the Unix world than it is to Microsoft (so why this briefing then?), apparently Linux costs just as much to license as the Microsoft solution when you buy it from SuSE or RedHat and if you factor in the training and nonexistent support .. well, it's much better to stick with the devil you know, isn't it?

Countering the free software message was the recurrent point that it's the integration of your 'software stack' that counts in the enterprise; does your J2EE or .NET development framework integrate top to bottom for your web services platform and your user desktop and can you manage a deployment of thousands of dekstops with a couple of mouse clicks from your central control bunker? This is probably true if you are Ford or Boeing but whether it plays well to the home user, small school or call centre is something else. Retreating up the value chain may look appealing as competition enters at the bottom, but if in a few years time all the graduates coming into the job market have Star Office and Ximian on their laptop it may be a different matter. And nobody talked about free as in 'libre', only gratis — a side to the debate that's old hat in Open Source circles.

Question time to the panel allowed various digs to be slipped in around security, patching and software IPR as well as 'why don't you unbundle Internet Explorer?' (courtesy E. Bleasdale, proprietor). Again Microsoft 'fessed up to security vulnerabilities in the past and said fixing it was their number one priority.

Laugh of the day went to Philip Hands who stood up from the floor and said that Debian had a better patch distribution system than Microsoft 'would ever have'. The compere jibed back 'Oh, so you are are a futurologist as well?' To which Philip replied 'Yes, I switched to Linux ten years ago'. Cue hilarity from the floor and time to troop out to a cracking free lunch.

Buzzphrases of the day: 'software ecosystem' and 'cherishing customers'. ®

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