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Big Blue: Livin' large with Linux
(IDG) -- IBM's announcement last week that it plans to pre-install Linux on several models of its popular ThinkPad laptops marks Big Blue's latest show of support for Linux and for open-source software in general. In backing the upstart technology, and its ethos of collaborative development and free distribution, IBM is targeting a consumer movement. It's also, possibly, out for revenge that's been long in coming.
It was just 15 years ago, after all, that another upstart technology, Windows, sparked the PC revolution and humbled IBM's ponderous mainframes.
"IBM's been on the other end of this," says Dan Kusnetzky, VP of systems software research at International Data Corp. "They are watching Linux do to Microsoft what Microsoft did to them."
Linux is now the fastest-growing server OS in the world. Linux is also edging onto the PC, last year becoming the third fastest-growing desktop OS, behind Windows 98 and NT Workstation, and ahead of Macintosh OS.
Nearly all of IBM's software and hardware is being retooled for Linux. The investment is hardly a resource drain for IBM: Software written for Unix, the core of IBM mainframes, can be reworked to run on Linux.
One attraction of Linux is the opportunity for standardized development on an open platform that isn't tied to a single vendor.
Still, it's not clear that Linux's popularity with Web infrastructure builders will translate into more profitable areas like databases and desktop applications. What's more, Linux has the potential to cannibalize some of the dozen other IBM-supported platforms. "IBM is trying to ride this horse along with all the other horses it's riding and not fall off any of them," says Kusnetzky. "This is a great circus act."
Linux is still perceived as too technical for most customers to install and manage. Companies like Caldera Systems, Red Hat and TurboLinux specialize in distributing their own versions of Linux with improved user interfaces, bundled applications and service and support. IBM's new A20m and T20 ThinkPad notebooks will run Caldera's OpenLinux eDesktop 2.4 software, which includes Sun's Star Office productivity suite.
"Most people, by and large, scoffed at the idea of putting Linux on the desktop. Historically, this has been for good reason," admits Caldera CTO Drew Spencer. "However, as the world moves forward, we're seeing those impediments being knocked out."
Still, until more popular applications, in particular Microsoft Office, featuring Word, Outlook and Excel, become available on Linux, most people are likely to stick with Windows.
"There are people who would be more interested in buying a laptop that runs Linux if they could get it pre-installed," says Bill Claybrook, an analyst at Aberdeen Group in Boston. "But the main reason people still aren't using Linux on the desktop is the lack of Microsoft Office."
While revenge is a dish best served cold, it may not necessarily be a sound business strategy. IBM's plans to offer Linux laptops make for good press in the swelling Linux movement. But it's not clear that they'll actually pay off.
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