So, you want to destroy Microsoft . . .

Here at the Gibbs Institute of Stealth and Intrigue, we've been considering the great questions of the moment. We started with the meaning of life, but that gave us a headache. We then took a shot at the truth about Tailgate, the US president's current fracas, but found that depressing (although the remark that Al Gore is the "safe pair of trousers in the White House'' had us in hysterics). So, we thought we'd attempt something easier: How to make the computer industry happy. And the answer, we concluded, was to remove Microsoft's stranglehold on the market.

I have re-marked in previous columns that serious competition would be good for Microsoft. Stiff competition would keep the company sharp and force it to refocus on consumer demands rather than continuing its current "we know best" approach.

So imagine if Microsoft's Windows operating systems had a real challenge! Imagine if you could get an operating system that was open, richly featured, stable, fast and cost next to nothing. Doesn't that sound good? We thought so, and then we immediately said "Linux!'' Linux is free and comes with source code, which is also free. It is fast, well-understood and backed up by a tremendous amount of software, ranging from general tools through compilers and Web, SMTP and FTP servers.

On the downside, Linux runs on a more limited range of hardware compared with Windows and lacks the one key attribute so cherished by the IT user community -- a vendor to complain to if things don't work right.

This is a pivotal issue. The lack of a single target to focus blame on makes IT feel uncomfortable. But what is it that we hear at the Gibbs Institute all the time? "My vendor's support is: pathetic; useless; incompetent; unavailable; all of the above.'' In short, "vendor support'' is a myth.

So let's for the moment put aside the support issue and focus on the potential of Linux to change the market. The idea is this: If enough companies that want to kick Microsoft's *** get together (we'll call them Antisoft), they could create a Linux workstation and server environment that would change the market.

As a server, Linux is impressive. There's little doubt that with the exception of support, it has all of the required attributes for IT purposes. But as a workstation, Linux suffers from a lack of GUIs and limited applications.

Now, what if Antisoft collaborated to build up Linux, turned it into an unbeatable platform for users, and made sure it is robust, user friendly, fast and supportable.

Perhaps Netscape could build browser capability into Linux as a core service. Then the entire presentation of Linux and applications running on it could be presented through a Web-ified interface.

Now, start adding in the goodies. Remember, Linux and most of the contingent products are free, so Antisoft will have to give away significant value.

For example, Novell could write a version of NetWare that runs along-side Linux much as NetWare for OS/2 ran alongside OS/2. Even more importantly, Novell could, and should, make NDS access for Linux free. It also should produce a free limited version of NDS for Linux, as well as a full commercial version.

Database vendors should create free basic Linux versions of their products, and Corel should make a free entry-level, as well as a low-cost, version of WordPerfect available for the new Linux. As for support, Linux arguably is better supported than many commercial products. In general, support inquiries to newsgroups get a response in about 15 minutes, and there are commercial organisations that support Linux if you really want to spend money.

The result of collaboration by Antisoft would completely upset the balance of power in the market and increase competitive opportunity. We'd get a bigger market with more dynamism, and everybody would be happier. Except Microsoft.

(Here at the Gibbs Institute, we feel we've potentially added to industry happiness, but we await your thoughts. Lay it on us at nwcolumn@gibbs.com)

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