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Commentary: Moving beyond Linux vs. Windows

Microsoft executives' comments about open source being a "cancer"--as well as the latest statistics on new licenses for Linux vs. Microsoft Windows--should be viewed with skepticism.

Recent comments by Microsoft executives about Linux and the open-source movement being a "cancer"--as well as the latest statistics on new licenses for Linux vs. Microsoft Windows--should be interpreted with a healthy degree of skepticism.

See news story:
Why Microsoft is wary of open source
Microsoft's objection to Linux and the open-source movement centers on the idea of software being available for free, which threatens revenue for traditional software makers. However, Linux remains unlikely to unseat either Windows or proprietary Unix versions now used on virtually all desktops and servers in commercial companies.

At the same time, Microsoft is perfectly happy to take advantage of the open-source concept of releasing source code and allowing third parties to fix bugs and make minor modifications. Then Microsoft can sit back, select the best fixes and update the core code as it sees fit. The keys for Microsoft are that it maintains control of the software and generates revenue.

Regarding market share statistics, it is difficult to make a fair comparison of Windows and Linux shipments. In the case of Microsoft, Windows licenses are not free and often ship as part of a base system package. Although Linux is also shipped as an option by most system makers, it is common for Linux to be downloaded from a server for free. The fact that people who download Linux may not choose to actually use it in a production situation is difficult to reflect in "shipment" statistics.

Similarly, some may choose not to use the copy of Windows they receive with their system, but this is less common. For business customers who want to draw conclusions from "shipment" statistics, it is safe to say that Microsoft Windows and higher-end versions of Unix--such as those from Sun, IBM and Hewlett-Packard--hold a much more dominant share of the market for production systems in corporate environments than most of these numbers indicate.

However, it's also important to note that Linux has found its way into many corporate environments via "embedded systems" running as the underlying operating system in various information appliances and prepackaged solutions.

Desktop system makers have a definite reason to prefer to provide Linux rather than Windows to their customers--they don't need to pay a licensing fee for Linux. The question is, how many of their customers will be satisfied with Linux. The answer, at least regarding desktop use, is "very few."

On the server side, all of the major server companies, except Dell, have their own proprietary versions of Unix to market. While they might not be happy selling systems running Windows NT--and therefore paying a licensing fee to Microsoft--they also do not want Linux as another competitor to their proprietary Unix versions on their hardware. Success for Linux on servers will come in part at the expense of the proprietary Unix versions, not just from the Windows NT share of the market.

Where Linux has the advantage
The one part of the market where Linux has gained real momentum is embedded systems. Here, the maker wants an operating system that can be highly customized for a specific use, will control how the embedded system is used, and is free from licensing fees. This is cutting into low-end Windows sales, but its impact on Microsoft will remain limited.

The markets where Linux may hurt Microsoft--as well as the proprietary Unix companies--are in eastern Europe and parts of Asia, which have large pools of talented technologists who work for much lower wages than similarly skilled individuals in the more developed economies. In these countries, it may be less expensive overall to support Linux systems in-house than to pay licensing fees for commercial operating systems for desktops and servers.

Meanwhile, the entire operating system issue is moving to a higher plane as the world increasingly focuses on Web services. This will pit Windows and .Net against a combination of various Unixes (including Linux), Java and higher-level XML-based standards such as SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol), WSDL (Web Services Description Language) and UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery and Integration)

In theory, Web services should be independent of underlying systems--that is, it should be possible to receive Web services from any company on whatever system the individual happens to be using. But Microsoft and most Unix companies typically have tried to add value through proprietary extensions that tie into lower levels of the technology stack. For that reason, it would not be surprising if each company finds some way to tweak Web services so that these services run best on its own platforms.

We recommend that organizations focus on mainstream environments and treat Linux as a tactical solution for embedded systems and special uses, unless they are operating in countries with a large and available skilled IT labor pool that does not demand high wages. Linux is unlikely to displace Windows or the proprietary versions of Unix now used on virtually all desktops and servers in commercial environments.

Regarding Web services, people should focus on this arena as it evolves, while recognizing that the dream of true system independence is an unlikely prospect that will require remarkable constraint.

Meta Group analysts Dale Kutnick, David Cearley, Val Sribar and William Zachmann contributed to this article.

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