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OS users still haven't found what they're looking for

December 14, 1998
Web posted at: 1:45 PM EST

by Tom Diederich

LA QUINTA, California (IDG) -- Never mind the Department of Justice's antitrust trial -- Microsoft Corp. may face competition simply because most users are fed up with Windows and ready to give just about any other operating system a shot, a recent poll found.

At the Giga Information Group's Emerging Technology Scene conference that wrapped up here yesterday, a poll of the 142-member audience -- made up largely of information technology industry executives -- showed that 58% would switch from Windows if they had the chance.

"This looks a lot like 15 years ago, when IBM was dominant and similar surveys showed a high tendency to switch from IBM to another vendor," said Giga analyst Rob Enderle, who conducted the survey. "The difficulty is that we're still waiting for the right kind of vendor to stand up and come forward."

Because the survey's sample size was relatively small -- under 150 people -- Enderle said the poll's margin of error was plus or minus 10%.

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Despite that, he said the strong anti-Microsoft tone to the responses was probably a fairly accurate bellwether of what the future PC operating system market will look like. In other words, more than one company will be represented.

In response to one of the survey questions, which asked respondents to name the vendor they trusted least to deliver on its promises, Microsoft came out well ahead of the pack at 59%. The second-place "winner" in this category was America Online Inc./Netscape Communications Corp. at 14%, followed by Oracle at 13% and IBM at 9%. The remaining companies -- Sun Microsystems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Compaq Computer Corp. and Intel Corp. -- all scored 2% or less.

"Given the fact that the desktop market space is predominately Windows, the results show an unusually high degree of dissatisfaction with the existing product and . . . a willingness to move to something else -- almost anything else -- to relieve their pain," Enderle said.

With all the hype surrounding Linux recently, the operating system based on "open source" Unix technology seems an obvious candidate to stand beside Windows, said several of those surveyed for Giga's study. Developed in 1991, Linux today runs on millions of household PCs, as well as on computers used by businesses, educational institutions and the U.S. government.

Major software and hardware vendors have announced products and support for Linux over the past several months. For instance, in October, Intel, Netscape and two venture capital firms bought a minority stake in Linux vendor Red Hat Software Inc. That deal, some industry watchers said at the time, could result in a widely accepted commercial version of the freely distributed operating system.

However, because Linux predates Windows NT and has problems taking advantage of capabilities packed in current-generation hardware, Enderle said he doubts the operating system will ever become a mainstream desktop alternative.

"I think something that's developed from scratch will have a much better shot at taking on the desktop, as opposed to something that's got the age behind it that Linux does," Enderle said.

Ironically, the company to watch in this space may be Linux inventor Linus Torvalds' employer, Transmeta Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif. This secretive company, which was founded in 1995, is working on a new multiprocessor for a next-generation platform as part of a project that encompasses both hardware and software for the desktop, Enderle said. Executives at Transmeta didn't return phone calls by deadline.

"It is the biggest cloak-and-dagger company we've ever seen," Enderle said. "The windows are even all blacked out. You can't get anything out of that firm." Transmeta's Web site isn't much help, either. Visitors are greeted with a single sentence parked in the browser's upper left corner in small type: "This Web page is not here yet."

"This company has a lot of leading-edge chip designers behind them, as well as the inventor of Linux. So they've got the skills set to develop something that is based around the current paradigm that takes advantage of the technologies that exist today, as opposed to technologies that have either become obsolete -- or certainly old -- over the last five years," Enderle said.

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