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Can Linux supplant Windows?

Windows and Linux have a long, bitter feud still to come, and it's apparently unlikely that latter will conquer the former.

Correction at 6:35 a.m. PDT: This article was initially written on the assumption that the study was new. It was actually published in 2005.

For those waiting for a grand cataclysmic battle between Gog (Linux) and Magog (Windows), with one supreme victor, don't hold your breath.

I was reading through a 2005 study by Harvard Business School professors Pankaj Ghemawat and Ramon Casadesus-Masanell, and was surprised by how little has changed in the past four years, despite Linux and Windows duking it out in ever-increasing intensity.

Since that study was released, Linux has continued to swipe at Microsoft's Windows market share. But, as the study predicted, Microsoft's huge installed base has proved both a strategic beachhead and an impenetrable fortress against the Linux threat.

Not that Microsoft can afford to rest on its laurels. Open-source interest and adoption grows from strength to strength, with government adoption, as recently highlighted by Gartner, feeding into enterprise adoption. This, coupled with Microsoft's weakening core business in Windows client software, suggests an opening for Linux that its proponents are eager to exploit.

And yet, as the study's authors surmised, a duopoly between the two is much more likely than a monopoly by either. What's most interesting to me is that this same duopoly dynamic seems to be playing out across the open source/Microsoft divide, most visibly in the browser market. Open source seems to beat many proprietary vendors relatively easily, but Microsoft is tough.

The study, despite its vintage, gives hints as to why Microsoft remains a formidable competitor for open-source alternatives like Linux:

Our main result is that in the absence of cost asymmetries and as long as Windows has a first-mover advantage (a larger installed base at time zero), Linux never displaces Windows of its leadership position. This result holds true regardless of the strength of Linux's demand-side learning. Furthermore, the result persists regardless of the intrinsically better design and potential differential value of Linux. In other words, harnessing demand-side learning more efficiently is not sufficient for Linux to win the competitive battle against Windows.

Microsoft's huge installed base and its ability (and willingness) to lower prices to compete with open-source solutions like Linux keep its moat broad and its gates high. It's one thing to be able to trounce Unix with a massive price differential, but it's quite another to displace Windows with its comparatively low cost and ecosystem benefits (i.e., Microsoft can lower the cost of Windows while keeping the cost of complements like SQL Server or Exchange high).

This is why we see Red Hat displacing Unix at a torrid pace, but so far doing little to cripple Microsoft. It's why other open-source solutions manage to topple non-Microsoft proprietary solutions first, with Microsoft generally the last target.

Most proprietary vendors lack the breadth of Microsoft's offerings. Most also have prices that start so high that it's difficult for them to credibly (and profitably) drop prices enough to effectively compete with open source. Microsoft is different.

Perhaps this explains Microsoft's visceral, early response to open source. I once asked Microsoft's general counsel, Brad Smith, why Microsoft stands largely alone in its adamant opposition to open source. He didn't have a compelling answer, but this study suggests a couple: Microsoft has fought open source so hard because it, more than any other vendor, has perhaps the most to lose and because it has the best tools to fight with.

All of the strategies the study's authors noted for fighting open source (selective pricing discounts, FUD, co-option, etc.), Microsoft has deployed. If the authors' suppositions continue to prove themselves correct, we'll continue to see much more of this over the years, but we're unlikely to see either Linux or Windows ultimately topple the other.


Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.