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MS Softway purchase – could it unleash ‘Linux for Windows’

Microsoft may be starting to buy the components of its Linux defence strategy

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On Friday Microsoft announced it had bought small San Francisco Unix developer Softway Systems, explaining that the deal was intended to strengthen Unix-Windows interoperability. But there's more to this than meets the eye - Softway had been putting its toes into the waters of open source and Linux on Windows, so despite the public statements, Microsoft may be tipping its hand. According to the press statement it's a case of small Unix developer engulfed, not many dead. And anyway, Softway had already been close to MS, announcing a co-marketing deal in May. The release says, deadpan, that Microsoft customers "will benefit from this acquisition through future expanded and integrated tools and utilities, via products such as Microsoft Services for Unix, which provide interoperability between Unix and Windows." Says Keith White, marketing director of MS Business and Enterprise: "While we recommend that customers migrate their software solutions to native 32-bit Windows, today's announcement allows certain customers to move rapidly to a Windows NT-based solution during that transition process." So Microsoft has only bought Softway in order to provide a bridge to allow Unix defectors to switch to Windows, allegedly. But there are a few problems with that pitch. First of all, Microsoft has plenty of bridges of this sort already, and has torched a couple of them already. The company just recently escaped from an antitrust action mounted by one of them, Bristol, but it has more. Softway, as an independent company, was one of them. So it's difficult to believe that there's much point to the Softway acquisition, and to the addition of "many members" of its development team to Microsoft's headcount. Nor does the Microsoft acquisition release mention the L-word. But Softway did earlier this year. Softway's Interix products use a POSIX-compliant subsystem on NT in order to allow Unix apps to run on NT. But back in June Softway CEO Doug Miller suggested something else: effectively, Linux for Windows. He outlined a product under development which would be a Linux-friendly release of Interix which would include "most of what you would find on a popular commercial Linux distribution (e.g. rpm, Gimp, Apache, Sendmail etc. etc.)." He sought feedback, and said Softway was planning to use an open source model (although actually he seemed to be aiming at some kind of semi-open source model, rather than the full whack). There were obvious problems with this, possibly explaining the silence from Softway since. It's not absolutely clear why Linux fans would want to run Linux apps on top of NT when they could just run them on Linux. And they certainly wouldn't want to pay for the privilege. Miller anticipated giving it away free for education, but charging for business users. Plus, Linux users who're at all bothered about Windows would prefer it the other way round - the ability to run Windows apps on Linux. But you can maybe see why a Redmond worried about developer momentum in the Linux market might see reason for acquiring Softway, and the (possibly embryonic) Linux for Windows. Softway's expertise could possibly be used as part of a Microsoft 'embrace and smother' campaign, and as a worst possible case, Microsoft could give Linux for Windows away with its own software in order to offer its users the best of both worlds. That of course would probably only happen if it looked like Linux was winning the apps war. Whatever, the purchase is clearly a move against Linux, rather than a minor addition to Microsoft's tools for migrating Unix shops. As the Bristol trial documentation showed, Microsoft is no longer much concerned about Unix - but it's deeply worried by Linux. ®

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