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IBM To Team with Linux Vendors on 'Microsoft-Free' PCs

IBM and name-brand Linux operating system distributors Red Hat, Novell, and Canonical/Ubuntu have disclosed their intentions to join forces with their hardware partners to create what they are calling "Microsoft-free personal computing choices."

IBM and its partners plan to bundle their Linux distros with Big Blue's Open Collaboration Client Solution, which includes Lotus Notes, Lotus Symphony, and Lotus Sametime. Under the agreement, PC makers will be able to sell the bundled software with their desktop products. The group expects to have these software bundles ready sometime next year.

IBM has had 10 years of experience supporting Linux on servers, and now the company sees the right conditions to work toward a desktop Linux push. Those conditions include shifting market forces, slow adoption of Microsoft's Vista desktop operating system and increasing demands for alternatives to "costly" Windows and Office licensing.

"Linux has always been about choice," said Inna Kuznetsova, director of Linux at IBM. She spoke to reporters gathered in San Francisco on Tuesday at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo. Referring pointedly to Microsoft's longtime desktop dominance, she added, "I can hardly name an area where choice is needed more."

Jeff S. Smith, Vice President of open source and Linux middleware for IBM's Software Group, called Linux's notoriously slow march to the desktop an "interesting evolution."

"It's no big secret that the client side of the IT environment is one of the last bastions of proprietary technology, disproportionately dominated by one vendor," Smith said. "We have long believed that helping to bring openness and choice to the client desktop is one of the next things to explode in this whole march for Linux."

Neither Smith nor Kuznetsova would provide the names of any hardware vendors who have signed on to this initiative. Kuznetsova said that the vendor deals were still in the works.

However, IBM's position is that desktop Linux is ultimately more profitable for a PC vendor. Moreover, it's better equipped to work with lower cost hardware than Microsoft's operating system. IBM plans to work with local business partners globally to build and distribute PCs preloaded with the Linux operating system of each distributor. 

According to Gartner analyst Michael Silver, this particular agreement does not represent the first time for such a Linux desktop push. He argues that the numbers just don't add up.

"The problem is, for most organizations, the time is not yet right for Linux on the desktop," Silver said. "Windows is not a huge cost when you get it on a new PC, and the annual cost to get a supported version of Linux with seven years of security-fix support could end up costing you more than you're paying for Windows. Windows has at least 10 years of security support and it's free."

The bigger problem, Silver said, is that most organizations still need Windows to run 70 percent to 80 percent of their applications. Adopting Linux forces them either to migrate those applications off Windows, which is an expensive operation, or pay for services to run them on Windows, further eradicating the value proposition.

"And that does not even address Access database apps or Excel Macros, which may not run on Linux or which may require significant migration costs of their own," Silver said.

"For a greenfield environment with no Windows apps, Linux is a viable choice, as is Apple Mac," Silver added, "but for the typical environments, Windows apps are too pervasive and entrenched [for a switch] to make economic sense."

Gartner expects that only 50 percent of a typical organization's applications will need Windows by 2012, so time will likely improve the viability of the non-Windows desktop.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance journalist and author based in Mountain View, CA.

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