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While in Britain last week, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer took a swipe at just about everything - from one of the world's largest Linux vendors to a social networking company he may end up buying. He insisted that Red Hat violates MS patents. He compared Facebook to GeoCities. He even accused Google of reading your email.

At the UK launch of something called the Microsoft Startup Accelerator Programme, the Redmond supremo badmouthed his archest of arch rivals as he discussed the ins and outs of online advertising models.

After telling his audience that Windows Live Hotmail generates relatively little ad revenue, he claimed that Google's Gmail suffers from much the same problem - despite nefarious activity from the Mountain View, CA outfit.

"Google's had the same experience - even though they read your mail and we don't," the Microsoft supremo said. You can watch the video here (registration required).

His audience was shocked - and amused - but Ballmer insisted he was simply telling it like it is. "That's just a factual statement, not even meant to be pejorative."

When we contacted Google, the company did not admit to reading user email. It pointed us to the Gmail privacy policy, which acknowledges that the company "processes" email communications: "Google's computers process the information in your messages for various purposes, including formatting and displaying the information to you, delivering advertisements and related links, preventing unsolicited bulk email (spam), backing up your messages, and other purposes relating to offering you Gmail."

At the same London event, Ballmer reiterated Microsoft claims that Linux users are infringing the company's patents. "We spend a lot of money - the rest of the commercial industry spends a lot of money - on R&D. We spend a lot of money also licenses patents, when people come and say 'Hey this commercial piece of software violates our patent, our intellectual property,' we'll either get a court judgment or pay a big check. I think it is important that the open source products also have an obligation to participate in the same way."

Then he went after Red Hat in particular. "People who use Red Hat, at least with respect to our intellectual property, in a sense have an obligation eventually to compensate us," he said.

Microsoft made headlines in May when general counsel Brad Smith and licensing chief Horacio Gutierrez told Fortune that Linux violates 235 MS patents. Last year, Novell signed a patent-cross-licensing deal with Microsoft over its SuSE Linux Enterprise Server, but Red Hat says it has no intention of inking a similar pact.

Ballmer also said that "I would love to see all open source innovation happen on top of Windows". You can see that gem in the same video.

Meanwhile, Steve told The Times of London that Facebook could be a fad. Yes, that's the same Facebook that Microsoft is on the verge of buying - according to unnamed sources.

“I think these things [social networks] are going to have some legs, and yet there’s a faddishness, a faddish nature about anything that basically appeals to younger people,” Ballmer said. At one point, he insisted that Geocities - the past-it web page builder purchased by Yahoo! in 1999 - "had most of what Facebook has."

But he wouldn't comment on a possible purchase. ®

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