Microsoft Flunked Comparing 101

It’s the thing to do since everyone is linking to the page–I just read Microsoft’s new page comparing Windows to Red Hat ( The marketing group at Microsoft does impressive work. They successfully got a large number of article writers and bloggers to keep their name floating on everyone’s mind (myself obviously included).

Nevertheless, if there was a school teaching how to compare products, Microsoft would’ve flunked. The first issue is a basic logical fallacy. You cannot necessarily apply a characteristic of one specific instance to the larger group and claim it to be true of the group as well. I happen to love spicy food, does that mean everyone named Josh loves spicy food? No. Microsoft’s link labeled “Compare Windows to Linux” goes to a page called “Compare Windows to Red Hat” so they’re comparing a specific linux distribution, Red Hat, with Windows but a visitor to the web site has clicked something leading him or her to think that s/he is reading information about Linux in general. Slimy as spam, that is.

The page is arranged like a large grid where the Y axis has a list of criteria on which the products are “compared” in two columns. The first criterion is total cost of ownership. In this criterion, Microsoft mentions Red Hat’s subscription fees for support (again Red Hat, not Linux distributions in general) but doesn’t discuss other costs that one would figure go into calculating total cost of ownership. The explanation glosses over how additional software components can be adopted in the first place, which may not require certain fees that would be present with Microsoft products. Though to its credit, Microsoft provides a report discussing support fees over time. I have not fully read that so I will not comment on it.

The more problematic issue is that when you read Microsoft’s own response to TCO it slants far from an apples-to-apples comparison of what it says about Red Hat. Even though it cites certain prices and issues with Red Hat it doesn’t offer parallel information for Microsoft. In other words, it is not a direct comparison and the reader is left in the dark about how the two actually compete here.

A well-constructed comparison would consistently and systematically compare the alternatives on the same criteria, using the same types of data so that the reader can understand what is similar or dissimilar. Forget that this is a marketing vehicle and forget that this is on Microsoft’s web site, which obviously has a strong interest to publish information biased toward its own products (I don’t mean to imply anything necessarily wrong with that). A critical reader of this comparison however, ought to be suspicious because it is constructed in such a way that it does not permit the reader to actually make a comparison on the terms it purports to. I think Microsoft would have a much more compelling page if it did a proper comparison rather than trying to trick readers with lousy logic and inconsistently responded criteria.

One last thing that interested me (I won’t go over these point-by-point), is at the bottom of the page. Microsoft states that open standards do not equal open source. Actually the page says

“Open Source is a software development and distribution model, which does not equate to how easily the software interoperates with other software or how open or standardized the interfaces are.”

I tend to agree with that characterization. I love that a typically proprietary vendor is saying this when so often I see proprietary software vendors flout their work on open standards as a method of deflecting the fact that their software is not open source. It’s as though they hope the similar sounding terms will stun questioners seeking open source.

Having said that, Microsoft talks about its own products in a way that attempts to make the reader feel the products are designed to be interoperable with everything. Reading carefully, Microsoft is not claiming so much to adhere to open standards as they are claiming that their products work with their own products and their partners’ products. They also mention competitors’ products and “engaging” in standards setting activities. Search news articles about open standards processes and they’ll be rife with commentary about Microsoft tactics at thwarting standards that don’t originate from a place sustaining Microsoft product dominance. Is that how it engages in standards setting activities?

I would argue that while open source doesn’t imply open standards, it could make developing open standards easier, since none of the software is locked behind proprietary secrecy. Rather, free and open source software enables anyone to study it and tinker so that common grounds can be engineered for standards–but then, from the outset, Microsoft also mischaracterizes free.

Addendum: nice comment from Barbara French, refreshing a good link to an article about the previous campaign. 

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