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Between the Devil & The Deep Blue Sea

Since I wrote about Microsoft losing the city of Munich to the Penguin, a combined bid from SuSe and IBM to introduce Linux on civil-servant’s desktops, I’ve been tracking the progress of the many stories that suggest Microsoft’s days are numbered.

Robin Bloor is touching up his Windows obituary and IDC Research are predicting that Europe will, in the next four years, be knee-deep in penguins, 162,000 servers and many more desktops, expected to reach half a million servers by 2007.

This growth is of course being encouraged by the willingness of the large vendors, IBM, Hewlett Packard and others to offer Linux to boost their lucrative service revenues as much as their hardware sales and it is not always as a rival to Windows. In many cases, Linux is pecking away at UNIX, which is arguably more vulnerable than Windows in a straight fight over ‘Total Cost of Ownership’. However, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Linux is both maturing out of the ‘X’ space and is losing its geeky image, the feature that once made it unattractive in the corporate space as a potential replacement for Windows.

But you’ve heard this all before and I still don’t see real evidence, in the UK at least, in business or government, there exist what I would describe as significant enthusiasm for Linux adoption, in a way that implies that Microsoft has its back against the wall, yet.

This may change but Microsoft is defending itself with a new argument. The company has always had to defend the proprietary nature of its software business. When you buy Microsoft software, you buy the equivalent of a car with the bonnet welded firmly shut. The engine or in this case, the source code, is Microsoft’s secret and until very recently, it was not prepared to share it with anyone.

Linux has changed all this. Firstly, Microsoft has lifted the bonnet and provided a degree of access to its code by suitably qualified parties, mainly governments but not BBC’s ‘Top Gear’. Secondly, Microsoft appears to be arguing that ‘proprietary’ is not a dirty word and that from a business perspective; it has advantages, simply because ownership implies both control and responsibility in equal measures. Open Source implies ownership by committee, where responsibility is ambivalent, diluted and distributed, much like the workings of local government.

Such an argument is bound to encourage strong feeling from the Open Source community, who firmly believe that the GPL process they support ultimately leads to better cheaper and more flexible software. But does it? Can the evidence really stand-up to detailed analysis or is the Open Source movement representative of a new kind of fundamentalism sweeping an industry searching for an alternative to Windows?

Let me leave you with two questions. When a business invests thousand or even millions in a computer software strategy, is it better to have the future of its software under the control of a single, accountable vendor or instead, is it preferable to have the future direction of its code determined by distributed consensus? Is this anarchy or is it common sense, the devil or the deep blue sea. Which is which?


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