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Monday, April 11, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.

Plugged in to Microsoft's biggest rival

Seattle Times technology reporter

KEN LAMBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Martin Taylor

Shortly after he joined Microsoft 12 years ago in Washington, D.C., Martin Taylor was tapped to help an executive from Redmond make a sales presentation.

The silver-tongued son of a Baptist minister and civil-rights activist was ready to show his stuff. "I was, what, 23, so I was like, 'Steve, Joe, I don't care, some bigwig from Redmond. I just want to go do this presentation,' " he said.

The executive was a vice president named Steve Ballmer, and the presentation was a disaster.

Ballmer was pitching a new operating system called Windows NT, but the hundreds of software vendors in the audience didn't care. They wanted to gripe about problems with Microsoft, so Ballmer and Taylor stopped showing slides and started taking notes.

Afterward, Ballmer kept on Taylor for months to be sure he followed up on the complaints and figured out how to solve the problems.

Martin Taylor General manager, platform strategy


Age: 35.

Education: George Mason University, economics major.

Raised: Throughout Virginia; his father was a minister who moved from church to church.

Family: Married father of three.

Microsoft: Hired 12 years ago in Washington, D.C. office.

Pastimes: Weekly basketball game with Steve Ballmer.

Ten years later, when Microsoft realized it was caught flatfooted by the rise of Linux and other freely shared open-source software, Chief Executive Ballmer called on Taylor to step into the fire once again and lead the fight.

Taylor, 35, heads an 18-person platform strategy group that has helped reposition Microsoft to face what's become its biggest competition.

Linux is still growing in popularity and the debate over the value of Linux vs. Windows continues to rage. But two independent studies released last week suggested the threat to Microsoft has subsided.

One said Linux has found little interest in the small to midsize companies where Microsoft software is most popular.

Some observers say Microsoft has regained its footing, in part because of Taylor's campaign to shift the debate in a direction that's more favorable to the company.

Microsoft has also gained ground because the Linux threat roused the slumbering giant, forcing it to improve its products and be more responsive to customers, said Laura DiDio, a Yankee Group analyst who reported last week that Windows is holding firm in the corporate market.

"For a long time," she said, "Microsoft was like a lot of companies that reached a dominant position — you can become complacent, you can become arrogant and you can take your users for granted. What this has done is awakened the competitive fires, not to mention the professional pride, of the folks at the top."

Taylor didn't use the word complacent, but telling the story of Microsoft's response to Linux he acknowledged the company was slow to respond. "I kind of describe our evolution as starting out not fully aware of Linux from an impact perspective and technology perspective," he said.

In the beginning, sneers

Microsoft initially sneered at Linux. Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds created the program in 1991 so he could run a variation of the industrial-strength Unix operating system on his PC. Torvalds shared the system on the Internet, where he asked others to help improve the system, and a phenomenon was born.

In recent years Linux moved from a hobby to a mainstream system in corporate networks. Linux server sales grew 36 percent in the fourth quarter of 2004 to $1.3 billion, or 9 percent of worldwide server sales, according to research firm IDC. The firm expects Linux server sale to reach $9.1 billion and 26 percent of the market by 2008.

Taylor said Microsoft initially saw nothing revolutionary in Linux technology and thought "it might not be that interesting to people."

Then when Linux became more popular, Microsoft had what Taylor called "an emotional response." Executives publicly derided Linux and even called it a cancer, further polarizing the industry into Windows and Linux camps.

"You had a very visceral, vibrant, emotional community being very negative aggressively toward Microsoft in a very emotional way, which sometimes causes an emotional response, of course," he said.

Taylor now advises employees not to blast a product that many of its customers appreciate.

Looking back, Taylor said the viciousness of the criticism almost kept him from taking the job and made his mother, a journalism major, worry about his career choice.

"She reads every paper in the country, I think," he said. "I used to get e-mails once a month — 'Are you still employed? Good gracious, every time I read the paper there's something else about Linux taking over the world.' "

Called to Redmond

When Microsoft woke up to the threat, Taylor found himself in a front-row seat. After D.C., he moved through the company, at one point selling its products to Wall Street firms and later heading its Caribbean subsidiary. At the start of 2002, he was called to Redmond to work as Ballmer's chief of staff.

Taylor helped Ballmer sort out the reorganization of the company into seven business groups. Then he worked with Ballmer on a push to make the company more responsive to customers, which dovetailed with customers' growing frustration with Windows' security issues, cost and licensing changes.

Taylor also picked up Ballmer's speaking style. When making a point, he speaks with Ballmer's trademark cadence, emphasizing a word or two near the end of a sentence with a high note and a smile. Like his boss, Taylor is also comfortable tossing batches of numbers into a conversation about a dense technical subject:

"Sure, there's an IDC study that says we're from 11 to 22 percent better total cost of ownership on these workloads. There's a Forrester study that says we're 25 to 28 percent on these workloads," he said during a recent interview. "I care less about the exact numbers and more about that customers are having a dialogue and doing their analysis and saying what's going to happen."

DiDio, the Yankee Group analyst, said Taylor is one of Microsoft's "secret weapons."

"He's sharp, smart; he's very, very quick," she said. "I come from New York. I'm used to talking quick, moving quickly. First time I ever met Martin, a few years ago, I felt I was with a 78 rpm record — I had to speed up my game."

Taylor, named after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for whom his father worked, also has another role at Microsoft. As one of the company's highest-ranking black employees, he also feels a responsibility to create more opportunities for people of different races to succeed at the company.

"We'd like our company to be more diverse, especially at the senior level," he said. "I think one way to do that is by having successful people that are diverse, that you can look up to and say, 'There is a career path for me.' "

Fresh face in fight

For Microsoft, Taylor was a fresh face it needed in its fight against Linux, DiDio said. "I don't think the guys at the top wanted to believe you could have this little upstart come and do this," she said. "I think they were in denial for a long time."

The first step was to ask customers what they saw in Linux. Taylor said the company talked to 6,000 customers around the world. The company also created the Linux lab to run the software and compare it to Windows.

Taylor recruited former IBM Linux advocate Bill Hilf to run the lab. Hilf keeps Microsoft abreast of the competition by running a stack of machines with about 30 different versions of Linux. He runs tests on the systems himself, uses them to explain the software to Microsoft colleagues.

Hilf is among 18 members of Taylor's team who work just across the street from Ballmer's building, in a row of unassuming offices decorated with the occasional Linux penguin logo. Taylor also hires a rotating mix of Linux experts for different projects, using an employment agency to recruit people.

Hilf said the lab helps Microsoft better understand its customers, many of whom run Linux alongside Windows. He also said the company isn't being sneaky — he makes no secret of his identity when he buys the software and calls Linux vendors for help.

"When I call support at Red Hat I often get a chuckle," Hilf said. "But it gives us a real customer experience."

While Taylor huddles with executives to hone strategies and flies around the world to meet with government and corporate customers, the team dissects and tests different versions of Linux.

Microsoft used its research and customer surveys to develop a marketing campaign it calls "Get the Facts." The campaign uses a collection of studies, some funded by the company, that raise questions about "total cost of ownership," or the actual cost of running Linux when support and other expenses are taken into consideration.

Linux supporters dismiss the campaign as propaganda, but it may have contributed to a shift in the Windows-Linux debate toward business questions and away from philosophical arguments about whether software should be freely shared.

"I think it's true that Microsoft has been successful in changing the discussion a little bit," said IDC analyst Al Gillen. "It's no longer an example of 'do I go with this free operating system or do I go with Windows?' That part of the discussion has gone away, you hear people asking much more sophisticated questions."

Gillen said the shift would have happened anyway, as companies spent more time with Linux and began doing more sophisticated analysis on whether it's a better deal.

Software buyers also grew tired of the sniping, said Tom Goguen, vice president of Sun Microsystems' operating platforms group.

"Those kind of fights we've been told by our customers are not a good thing," he said. "The whole Sun-Microsoft battles of four or five years ago, customers did not find those productive and they're very happy we've resolved those now. We're looking at it, saying we've learned a good lesson there."

Red Hat, the leading Linux systems vendor, said customers are asking more questions about the costs, but it's not necessarily sending customers to Microsoft.

"Customers are asking about security quite often, they're asking questions about the real value that open source brings," spokeswoman Leigh Day said. "I think what it's causing is it's causing customers to investigate Linux and open source even more."

Taylor said the campaign has changed the "customer dialogue" and has put Microsoft in a better position to sell against Linux.

More corporate Linux

Microsoft has also benefited from Linux becoming more corporate. Linux development is now heavily subsidized by vendors such as IBM. Businesses may still download free copies, but many end up getting the software as part of a hardware purchase or paying vendors for support.

"That's helped quite honestly to shape a discussion on a set of dimensions, so you're not comparing this free thing from the cloud to this pay thing from Microsoft," Taylor said. "You're comparing a pay thing from Microsoft to something I pay either Red Hat or Novell or IBM for, so now let me go look at TCO (total cost of ownership), security, reliability."

Taylor may be gaining ground but there's a bigger battle under way, Gillen said. He thinks Linux and other freely shared software will force even more dramatic changes at Microsoft.

"My belief is that open-source software is going to help drive the acquisition cost of software down toward zero," he said, a shift that will require software companies to move "over to a maintenance and support model."

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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