Microsoft Linux: Forecast or fantasy?

This snapshot of the future is neither the far-fetched fantasy of an antitrust lawyer nor the ranting of an open source programmer, but a portrait painted by various industry experts who consider it a likely scenario.

Others argue there'll be a hailstorm in hell before Microsoft ports Office to Linux.

Recently, it looked like hail was in the forecast when LinuxCare executive vice president Arthur Tyde told a crowd at the CeBIT show that Microsoft was developing Office for Linux. A Microsoft spokesperson quickly rebutted Tyde's statements, calling them bogus and adding, "[Linux] is not a robust enough platform."

Ironically, Linux, not Windows, is known in the industry as one of the most stable and robust operating systems. But Microsoft won't compliment Linux, because it doesn't sell Linux applications.

Right now there's no danger of Linux undermining Microsoft's dominance in the desktop operating system market. According to IDC market research, Linux users comprise only 4 percent of the desktop operating systems in the United States (not bad for an OS that's been around only since 1991). Because Windows holds a comfortable lead as a desktop operating system, shipping applications for Linux isn't in Microsoft's best interest.

But if Linux lives up to its potential, dominance by the open source operating system might be closer that we think. IDC also estimates commercial shipments of Linux will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 25 percent from 1999 through 2003, on both client and server. The research firm expects other operating systems will see only a 10 percent compound growth in those same years.

As Linux whittles away at Microsoft's 90 percent-plus market share, what will happen to Microsoft?

If people migrate to another operating system, Microsoft loses customers in two areas, not just one, notes Neal Stephenson, author of In the Beginning Was the Command Line.

"Ten years from now, most of the world's computer users may end up owning these cheaper OSes," Stephenson says. "Every time someone decides to use a non-Microsoft OS, Microsoft's OS division obviously loses a customer. But as things stand now, Microsoft's applications division loses a customer too."

If the Windows market share slips, fewer people will need Windows applications, Stephenson reasons. "Microsoft could simply recompile its applications to run under other OSes. But this strategy goes against normal corporate instincts," he adds.

Clearly, if Microsoft loses its stronghold with consumer operating systems, porting its software to the newcomer is the way to stay afloat. But the same corporate Darwinism that helped Microsoft achieve an OS stronghold may also prevent it from acting in its own best interest.

Balancing act

Until Microsoft says good-bye to its operating system monopoly, don't look for any announcements of Office for Linux, says Bill Claybrook, research director of Linux and Open Source Software at the Aberdeen Group.

"[Porting Office] would propel Linux on the desktop even more," he states. "If I were Microsoft, I would not announce a port now. But I wouldn't be surprised if they had someone looking into it."

Microsoft might act if people move to a competing office suite on Linux, like those from Applix, Corel, or Sun, Claybrook says.

Or, Microsoft could release Microsoft Linux, suggests Brian Livingston, author of a number of Windows books, most recently Windows 2000 Secrets.

"If Microsoft were to provide excellent installation, setup, and support for Linux, Microsoft would probably be very successful in the Linux market," Livingston says. "But Microsoft probably will not do anything to support Linux."

Microsoft may seem a long way from losing its domination on the desktop. But between upstart competition, antitrust challenges, and the company's own almost-paranoid competitiveness, its reign may not last forever. If Microsoft does finally lose its throne, it can surrender its kingdom or share the land.

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Alexandra Krasne

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