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Opinion: Gartner's anti-Linux propaganda doesn't hold up

October 22, 1999
Web posted at: 9:23 a.m. EDT (1323 GMT)

by Joe Barr


(IDG) -- Recently, Gartner Group raised hackles, eyebrows, and blood pressure with a series of marginally-informed "reports" on Linux-related matters. In return, the Linux community raised something of its own: the quality of its response to this latest rash of bad press.

Even yours truly refrained from sending off an obscenity-laden missive via email to Gartner Group asking how much Microsoft paid for those reports. Don't get me wrong -- I did ask how much Microsoft paid to commission the reports, but I was ever so polite about it.

Before turning an inquisitive and (hopefully) objective eye to the reports themselves, let's take a look at the bigger picture. Let's take a look at the background of Gartner Group and its analysts -- who they are, what they do, and the who they do it for.

Mainsoft mixes NT and Linux

Who are these guys, anyway?

The Gartner Group styles itself as "the voice of IT" and "the world's leading authority on information technology." I guess a group whose function is to sell information to people who should already know it has to sound that self-assured.

The company has over 1,000 analysts and more than 3,000 full-time professionals working hard to keep its client base knowledgeable about what it is doing. That client base is, according to Gartner Group, made up of over 35,000 individuals across 11,000 organizations.

Gartner Group writes reports -- reports on all sorts of things relating to IT: hardware, hardware vendors, software, technologies, markets, consumers -- anything that moves in the IT space.

When Pointy-Haired Managers (PHMs) suddenly need to know what's up, they look to Gartner Group or similar firms for the answers. Gartner Group is more than happy to provide them -- for a price, of course.

Say that you are a suit with a Fortune 500 firm. Your mainframes are no longer powerful enough to complete your daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly batch processing on time. The boss wants you to put your career on the line by recommending their replacement.

What do you do? Well, if you don't know the right answer, you turn to Gartner Group for advice.

Hey, don't laugh; it's a clear step above management by reading magazines, which is how a lot of firms who can't afford the difference in price between a subscription to InfoWorld and the services of Gartner Group get their answers. And there is a good chance that Gartner's information may be better than a pundit's.

So, the big question: Is Gartner Group in Microsoft's pocket?

No, not at all. From time to time, the company raises the same kind of hackles in Redmond as it's just raised in the bazaar.

In March of 1998, a leaked Gartner Group report prepared for Novell made the claim that NT 5.0 (this was before Microsoft changed its name to Windows 2000) would not ship before the second quarter of this year. At the time, Microsoft was still trying to convince anyone who would listen that the ship date would be late 1998. Then, as quickly as it had surfaced, the report was removed from view.

Guy Kewney, writing for PC Magazine in the UK, speculated on who might have had enough industry clout to convince Gartner not to publish its very reasonable (and, as it turned out, overly optimistic) findings. He did not jump to the conclusion that it was Microsoft, but wondered if it were simply a case of Gartner Group getting cold feet.

In short, if you are a PHM, you pay Gartner Group to tell you what you need to know, and you trust it to be right often enough to not get you fired.

OK, enough with the background, already. Let's get down to particulars and take a look at what the Gartner Group reports had to say.

The Linux files

The title of the first one asks, "Will Linux be viable competition for Windows desktops?" If nothing else, it poses a good question, one that is certainly on a lot of minds these days, in Redmond and elsewhere.

Gartner dismisses the chances of this happening with statements like this: "To displace Windows, Linux would have to offer some compelling feature or 'killer application' that is so overwhelming that it justifies a migration."

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The second report ("1999 OS forecast: The Linux face-off") projects market share in server dollars for the next few years. This one even contains a pretty graphic. The Gartner Group finding is that Linux will fade from the scene following the release of the first service pack for Windows 2000.

The third report ("Red Hat's future: Boxed in") concludes that Red Hat will fail to overthrow Microsoft by 2004, and suggests that Red Hat needs to find a more viable business model.

So there you have it. A pretty dim view of Linux consistently presented across three reports, all of which appear in the Microsoft section of the Gartner Group Webletter. But let's take a look at the reasoning for these judgments and see if it holds water.

The killer app is an urban legend

The quaint old notion of a killer app is one that may or may not ever appear in a free market. Other than VisiCalc, perhaps, there has never been an app that caused a mass migration from one operating system to another. And I'm not so sure VisiCalc caused a migration away from one OS towards another so much as it simply drew people away from their adding machines and calculators to PCs.

Basing a finding on a myth is not something that analysts should do. Any analyst worth her salt examining the PC desktop world today should have a completely different set of assumptions about its dynamics.

The dynamics of monopoly should come under scrutiny, for instance, since that's what gives Microsoft the power of life and death over the world's largest PC makers, and is thus what keeps Windows supreme on the desktop.

The outcome of the DoJ versus Microsoft case is something else to keep in mind as well. If anything is going to allow Linux and other operating systems a chance to thrive, it most certainly is not going to be a killer app; it is going to be an effective end to the unregulated monopoly that Microsoft enjoys on the desktop today. Without that, all the alternative operating systems are going to be relegated to that 10 to 15 percent of users who are capable of installing an operating system themselves.

Several times in the third report, Gartner Group makes the mistake of equating Red Hat with Linux, which marks the company as completely clueless on the topic matter. The report's own words illustrate the company's lack of savvy much more effectively than any commentary I might provide: "Red Hat will not meet the Linux community's expectations of overturning Microsoft's dominance and becoming a billion-dollar software company by 2004 (0.8 probability)."

Clearly, Gartner Group does not yet have a firm grasp on the difference between a distribution and Linux, or even on who the players are in the distribution game. While it may be on the mark about some of the IPO frenzy which has made Red Hat a hot stock, pitting Red Hat against Microsoft is the argument of an idiot.

Give them time

While Gartner Group has displayed only the shallowest level of understanding of Linux and the PC software market, these reports are not the result of purposeful bashing on behalf of Microsoft or anybody else. They are simply the result of analysts writing about things they don't understand.

As Linux becomes more and more a part of the enterprise, expect Gartner Group to become more and more Linux literate. It's just not there yet.

The good news is that Linux awareness is now being raised in the highest corner offices in the enterprise, served up in easy-to-digest pablum form by the "voice of IT" itself.

Granted, most of the board members won't know GNOME from KDE, or Red Hat from Slackware -- but they will remember that enough people have begun considering Linux as an alternative to Windows that Gartner Group found it necessary to refute the idea.

Joe Barr is a software professional, writer, and self-proclaimed dweeb. He has been working in the industry since 1974 as a programmer, analyst, consultant, and manager.

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