The alternative desktop movement is gathering momentum, so much so that 2004 could prove to be one of the most challenging years in Microsoft's history.
For customers the news is good. Competition will mean lower prices, greater interoperability and better manageability.
For disties, ISVs and VARs the opportunity is clear. Here are new platforms to deploy, support and write software for, with plenty of retraining, integration and services opportunities.
Anyone who has used one of the latest Linux desktops knows they are good. They look and feel a lot like well ... Windows. Home users of systems such as Xandros and Lycoris have been impressed. But most corporate users just have not seen how far Linux has come, nor how fast.
But Linux is just an operating system, right? What about Office applications? Businesses need Office, don't they?
Sun sells StarOffice, an office suite based on an open source base, OpenOffice. It works pretty damn well, and more importantly interoperates successfully with most Microsoft Office files. It is also as cheap as chips - about a 10th the price of its Microsoft equivalent.
Sun deserves kudos; the firm may have been slow to adopt Linux on the server, but it has no plans to make the same mistake twice. The company has just signed a deal, with no hardware component, to sell more than a million Linux desktops in China.
Everyone knows that email and calendaring are crucial apps to most workers, don't they? Linux now supports email packages that do a fair job of replicating Microsoft Exchange servers and Outlook clients.
Samsung Contact, for example, runs on Linux or Unix. SuSE's Open-exchange is another Exchange equivalent, and IBM's Lotus messaging servers also directly support Microsoft Outlook.
On the client side, Ximian Evolution, which supports Exchange-based calendars, contacts and tasks, is a well publicised choice.
What about channel and enterprise support though? Novell acquired SuSE a couple of weeks ago, following its acquisition of Ximian earlier this year.
Novell has been fighting Microsoft for longer than most of us would care to remember; now they are going head-to-head again. Novell still has a reasonably strong channel and loyal customers.
These channel partners can now sell new solutions into their existing customer sets, while new partners are likely to be attracted to the end-to-end nature of Novell's Linux offerings.
The dark horse, though, is IBM. Anyone remember what happened with Linux when Big Blue anointed it as ready for server primetime?
At last month's inaugural Linux Desktop Consortium conference, a senior manager from IBM Global Services (IGS) announced that Big Blue is building a corporate support programme for Linux-based desktops to be launched this year.
He cited a recent IDC report that Linux on the desktop will grow from about 1.5 per cent market share today to seven per cent by 2006.
What does the fact it was IGS at the podium tell us? It tells us that customers are pulling IBM towards a desktop Linux strategy, rather than the other way around.
IGS is driven by what users want, rather than by what IBM products it can sell. IBM was selected by the UK government to run its desktop Linux interoperability trials. What's more, IBM is determined to succeed in the channel.
The growing challenge to Microsoft will be both psychological and economic. If Microsoft begins to lose, rather than gain desktop market share, a major psychological and economic turning point will have been reached; the company will have truly reached middle age.
Microsoft is used to attacking its competitors on the desktop, not defending itself. Does all this Linux stuff mean that Microsoft is in dire trouble?
Absolutely not. It still offers levels of productivity and richness in the user experience that others find extremely hard to match. The Windows desktop franchise still has plenty of legs. But psychologically the game has changed.
Microsoft may have caught up with Java on the server, but now it has stronger competition on its home turf. That is good for customers. For the channel, this competition could drive business throughout 2004.
James Governor is principal analyist at RedMonk.
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