IBM, friends push 'Microsoft-free' world

IBM and its Ubuntu-toting partners say CIOs can boot Microsoft from desktops. Could their efforts work this time?

Microsoft Vista has a way of raising ire within IT managers. The hefty system requirements and the fleet of bad press have some talking about skipping the nearly 2-year-old OS.

And others talk of switching allegiance completely, though in reality Microsoft Windows still holds a massive 94.9% share in desktop OS use.

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IBM and its Ubuntu-distributing friends would like to change that, though. Earlier this month, four companies announced a prepackaged "Microsoft-free" desktop deal. It combines the popular Linux-based Ubuntu OS with IBM's family of Lotus applications, meant to replace Microsoft Office products. With system requirements lower than those for Vista, the whole package could possibly be installed on an ultra-low-cost PC (ULCPC).

At the end of the day, the partnership, which puts IBM in alliance with Red Hat Inc., Novell Inc. and Canonical Ltd., is just a marketing scheme, say some, considering the products aren't new. Still, the "Microsoft-free" approach could be a godsend to a midmarket CIO working with limited resources to spend on new software and PCs, since it's potentially cheaper, partly open source and prepackaged with the help of a local value-added reseller. But is it realistic? And could it really take off?

To a point, said Bruce Guptill, managing director at Westport, Conn.-based research firm Saugatuck Technology Inc. A growing acceptance of open source software in enterprises, combined with the perception of Windows as a pricey product, could help IBM and friends move some units.

Combine that with the possibility of employing ULCPCs, spurred on by the proliferation of cloud-based Software as a Service applications, and the "Microsoft-free" pitch looks pretty good.

But this is still the David and Goliath pitch of open source. It may have only a certain amount of traction, Guptill said. For starters, the three companies providing Ubuntu support are competitors.

"All three compete for desktop computer market share, and Red Hat and Novell compete at the server/data center level," Guptill wrote in an email response to questions. "Each has strengths in different markets, but expecting them to work together to help IBM is like expecting three hungry dogs to work together to deliver bones to a single master."

Microsoft is also still Microsoft. Legacy applications die hard, Guptill said. And Microsoft has built itself quite the legacy within most enterprises.

"While there is a lot of publicity about various organizations rejecting Microsoft, in truth, almost none of these are throwing out Microsoft," Guptill said. "Most are just considering and, sometimes, implementing alternatives when and where appropriate in future software and IT purchases.

"The truth is, Microsoft software works at least as well as most users demand," he added. "There are and will always be more cost-effective, efficient and probably better-engineered alternatives."

The plan is also channel-heavy, with partners pushing the package, as well as additional software applications, according to IBM. Guptill acknowledged that IBM has a strong channel presence, but he noted in a report that Microsoft remains the "worldwide software channel champion, especially among channels serving small and midsized businesses -- which are a prime target of the 'Microsoft-free' alliance."

Trust is problem one in getting a client to consider an open source solution and anything with the IBM imprimatur has instant brand recognition and respect.
Stan Middlebrooks
CEOMiddlebrooks Management and Computer Consulting
And, in reality, Vista is not necessarily more expensive than Linux. Guptill pointed out that Red Hat, Novell and Canonical offer Ubuntu as a packaged product, with support and all. It is open source. Don't mistake that for free. In some cases, Guptill said, a Linux-based OS could cost more than Windows.

But there could also be hope for the plan -- and open source adoption in general.

"The number of user executives reluctant to implement open source software and solutions in their enterprises is shrinking below 25%," Guptill said. "Open source just makes too much sense to ignore. As of this year, more than 75% of user IT and business executives worldwide, in all types and sizes of firms, tell us they 'always' or 'frequently' consider and evaluate open source for all aspects of business software."

Stan Middlebrooks, a consultant who spends 85% of his time working with the IT shop at the 13-campus Herzing College, said his clients are skipping Vista to await Windows 7, Microsoft's next OS release. And if that isn't satisfactory, open source will be an option, Middlebrooks said.

"Up the road a bit the idea of an IBM non-Windows environment sounds very intriguing, as trust is problem one in getting a client to consider an open source solution and anything with the IBM imprimatur has instant brand recognition and respect," Middlebrooks said.

Guptill said he also believes the proliferation of ULCPCs will cause CIOs to look at alternatives to the Microsoft Windows/Office stalwart. As more applications are run from the cloud, desktop computers may not need the computing power they once did. And that bodes well for Vista alternatives, which could run on slimmed-down PCs.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Zach Church, News Writer

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