I.B.M. Helps Promote Linux
By Steve Lohr
The New York Times
November 11, 2003
Linux is a rising star in the geeky back office of computing. Its gains have come as an operating system for the data-serving computers that run corporate networks and serve up Web pages. On the desktop, Microsoft's Windows still reigns supreme.
But I.B.M. and the Open Source Development Lab, whose membership includes Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Intel, are beginning a drive to promote Linux as an alternative to Windows on the desktop.
One indication of their more aggressive approach came yesterday when an I.B.M. executive, Samuel J. Docknevich, delivered a speech at a technology conference outside Boston titled "The Time Is Now for Linux on the Desktop."
The Open Source Development Lab - a nonprofit organization to advance the use of open source software like Linux - is planning a program to encourage corporate adoption of desktop Linux, set to begin in January. "We're going to push a big desktop Linux initiative," Stuart F. Cohen, chief executive of the Open Source Lab, said last week in an interview. "It's clearly something our members want."
Mr. Cohen and others at the organization gave few details, except to say that the lab would try to broaden the base of support for desktop Linux. That, for example, might include helping with technology that could make it easier for Linux users to exchange data and documents created with Windows-based software. It might also include persuading the makers of popular personal computer software, like RealNetworks' media player or Adobe's desktop publishing software, to create Linux versions.
Any inroads Linux makes on the desktop will probably come slowly. More than 300 million people worldwide use the Windows desktop operating system and Microsoft's Office suite, which includes the Word, Excel and PowerPoint programs.
But Linux advocates say that the full complement of Microsoft desktop software has far more features, and is far more costly, than most workers at many companies really need.
And corporate technology officers are concerned about the cost of upgrading tens of thousands of PC's every couple of years to new versions of Microsoft software and about the security flaws in Microsoft products that have been exploited regularly by digital vandals writing viruses and worms.
Linux has gained desktop converts for specialized uses like software development, computer animation and in scientific computing. Abroad, some governments and municipalities have championed the use of Linux. Earlier this year, for example, Munich announced that it would move from Windows to Linux on 14,000 desktop machines used by city workers.
Yet Linux on the desktop has not really made its way into the mainstream corporate market, especially in the United States. And I.B.M., whose entry into the personal computer business in 1981 made the PC a respected business tool, has the influence with corporate customers to give Linux on the desktop real credibility, analysts say.
"There is a lot of interest in Linux on the desktop from customers; this is definitely a trend with traction," said Scott Handy, vice president for Linux strategy and market development at I.B.M. "But we're being very pragmatic."
Long gone are the days of OS/2, I.B.M.'s desktop operating system, when Big Blue tried to confront Windows head on and wrest dominance of the operating system market from Microsoft.
The I.B.M. plan now is to use Linux as the desktop operating system in a simplified computing environment that relies on delivering, updating and maintaining desktop applications over high-speed corporate networks. Faster, low-cost telecommunications and improved Internet software make the transition possible, Mr. Handy said.
Studies have estimated the total cost of ownership of a PC in a corporate setting at $5,000 to $7,000 a year. The hardware and software costs are typically less than 30 percent of the total, with the expense of maintaining, updating and debugging accounting for the rest.
Deploying Linux and having applications centrally distributed and managed on server computers, using Internet technology, can cut the cost of owning a desktop machine in half or more, Mr. Handy said.
"The discussion with customers usually starts with Linux," he said. "But the huge gains come from using this server-based architecture, which is made possible by these Internet technologies. And Linux is one of them."
I.B.M., Mr. Handy said, is conducting dozens of assessments for corporate customers of Linux desktop use as part of a program to reduce costs. The companies, he said, do not want to be named because they have not decided to switch desktop technologies.
The Linux desktops tap into the applications on server computers, using a browser. E-mail, calendar, customer relationship management and word-processing applications are included. Mr. Handy said this kind of computing could be easily adopted by bank branch offices, sales people, insurance agents, auto dealers and others.
I.B.M. is trying it itself. About 15,000 workers use Linux desktops, mostly software developers and researchers. By the end of the first quarter of next year, I.B.M. plans to increase the number of Linux desktops to 30,000 as sales, marketing and administrative workers try it.
Still, Linux on the desktop has a long way to go. Shipments of Linux rose to 2.8 percent of desktop operating systems in 2002, up steadily from 1.7 percent two years earlier, according to IDC, a research firm. Windows accounted for nearly 94 percent of shipments last year.