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The Anatomy of a Frontal Assault on Apache: Microsoft's Web Server Strategy

Jun 28, 1999, 12:46 (57 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Conrad Sanderson)

By Conrad Sanderson

Microsoft's Steve Ballmer has recently made some interesting noises in Austria. As mentioned in LinuxToday and Microsoft, Kanzler Klima ... (translated via Babelfish), during a keynote address (and/or an interview) Ballmer said "Apache is simply better." And then: "It is our own fault if we do not offer enough features with our servers to justify their price. When it comes to hosting several sites on one server version, Apache is simply better. Windows 2000 will solve this problem."

This is a warning sign 1000 miles high and wide that is easy to decipher knowing Microsoft's tactics and their history. Everybody knows what happened to Netscape. Let me dissect what is going to happen to Apache (and indirectly, to Linux):

  • Microsoft admitting that Apache is better ? Let's remember that Microsoft is more of a marketing company - they would never, ever, I repeat, ever do that. They are too accustomed to spreading FUD and proclaiming "our stuff is better than competition" even when it clearly isn't so. Since they are admitting that the price/performance/features equation of Apache is better than anything Microsoft has to offer, it means they have gotten used to the idea, mulled it over, and came up with a solution. Apache is not just hurting them financially in the server market - it is also hurting them in the statistics game, and Microsoft hates not being on top. They hate not being in control. At last count Apache has 57% of the server market while MS had about 23%.
  • The MS solution to the Apache problem: Windows 2000 will have a simple (lightweight?) web server - very easy to setup and maintain. This will be "integrated" into the operating system, just as Internet Explorer was in Win98.
  • This MS web server will also be available as a free download, for use on Win95 and Win98 machines. This is done purely to spread it and populate it everywhere - make use of the existing Windows userbase, since the Windows 2000 upgrade (read: migration) will take some time. Have you counted how many pirate MP3 sites use primitive FTP servers running on Windows ? The installed user base of Windows machines runs into the 100s of millions, while Linux and other UNIXes that run Apache are only a small percentage of that.
  • This new free MS web server will not be as fast, or feature rich as their current IIS server. They still want to make some money out of it. People will be easier to convince to upgrade from the free server to IIS after being used to a Microsoft product. Even if the free web server eats into their IIS sales, their thinking is that it is at least a Microsoft web server and not Apache...
  • ... which leads us to: Microsoft will add some Internet Explorer-only features into their new web server (small at first), thus attempting to control the server and client side at the same time. Using Netscape to access the web server ? Too bad it won't do SomeCoolNewFeature - normal people and Windows geeks won't be impressed...
  • The new free web server / Windows 2000 combination will reduce the appeal of Apache, and hence, Linux (sinceit is the primary platform on which Apache runs on). The main attraction of Linux/Apache is the price and functionality. To most people, its Open SourceNess is a secondary bonus. Microsoft understands this and is attempting to weave a self-fullfilling prophecy of "Linux is only a fad". Stability is of course important, but Microsoft's Marketing Power (tm) will make sure that this is non-issue when the advertising (read: hype) campaign starts for Windows 2000.
  • Attacking Apache with this kind of tactic is not legally painful as integrating the browser was. After all, Apache isn't made by a company. To the legal system and Microsoft, Apache came out of the ether and its secretary is a website.
  • Overall, this strategy isn't much different from what Microsoft did to Netscape. MS is yet again leveraging the Windows installed user base to counter a new threat: Open Source Software. But this threat is of much greater importance and greater stakes are at play here. They know OSS works. They know it has better stuff than they make. They know it develops quicker. They are scared of becoming obsolete. But most of all they are scared of not being on top, not being able to dictate. Not being able to control.

Recommendations:
  • Fix the performance problems in the Linux kernel and Apache as soon as possible, to create yet another viable technical reason for choosing Linux/Apache over Microsoft products and take the wind out the sails of Microsoft's PR benchmark department.
  • Increase the population of Linux before Windows 2000 is released by having a good office suite for Linux (KOffice and Corel Office are good candidates).

Final Thoughts:
Steve Ballmer on Linux: "one of the five problems, which employ me before falling asleep. But I sleep nevertheless still quite well."

Let's make him sleep unwell.