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Is AOL considering a Windows alternative?

Whether it's coincidence or not, America Online's ambition to expand beyond the boundaries of desktop computing has given the company a stake in the future of Linux and Java.

Whether it's coincidence or not, America Online's ambition to expand beyond the boundaries of desktop computing has given the company a stake in the future of Linux and Java, two technologies many see as antithetical to the interests of Microsoft.

A year ago, the company largely functioned as a consumer Internet service provider. But its market muscle has grown considerably since then.

The company's acquisition of Netscape and the resulting software deals with Java developer Sun Microsystems have transformed the company into the potential to become a desktop power broker. By virtue of the Netscape acquisition, for instance, AOL has inherited an equity stake in Red Hat, the biggest Linux vendor and a company that has received investments from computing powerhouses Intel, Oracle, and IBM, among others.

And, in cooperation with Sun, the company has launched "AOL Anywhere," an effort to enable AOL access using other devices besides desktop computers.

The results of these investments and programs is impossible to gauge at the present. Nonetheless, AOL's holdings and strategies seem to parallel the types of alternatives-to-Microsoft strategies seen at other companies. Corel and others, for example, want to tailor Linux, which is currently mostly used as a server operating system, into an ultracheap consumer-oriented OS.

Like the Java-based devices envisioned in the AOL Anywhere dream, such cheap Linux computers could give AOL another route to lower the price consumers have to pay to get AOL's Internet services.

Is a cheap AOL-Linux device in the cards? "It's a really dumb idea," said Jupiter Communications analyst David Card regarding such a computer.

Nonetheless, AOL's power in software will certainly carry over into hardware. "I think AOL could be a market maker in any number of areas," Card said.

Red Hat confirmed that the Netscape investment has shifted to AOL, but AOL spokeswoman Wendy Goldberg declined to comment on the company's plans, saying the company doesn't discuss unannounced products.

Linux, fueled by the experimental efforts of hundreds of programming enthusiasts, is spreading outside its current stronghold in servers. Empeg is working on a Linux-based digital music player for cars, NetGem has announced a Linux-based set-top box, and Corel sees Linux as the way to avoid the Windows licensing fee for ultracheap computers.

Doubt, of course, exists. Though Linux is reliable, "I'm not convinced Linux is the appropriate operating system to run in a consumer device," said Patricia Seybold Group analyst Anne Thomas, echoing comments from other analysts. In consumer devices, the operating systems are hidden from the users, but "it's kind of hard to completely hide Linux," she said.

Linux is simply too "overfeatured" for that space, and even without the Windows licensing fee, a hardware company would still have to pay the relatively high prices for Intel or other general-purpose chips, Jupiter's Card said.

"If you want to strip something down, don't start with a PC. Start with a set-top box or a game console," Card said.

For consumer devices, "I'd go with an embedded RTOS [real-time operating system]," Thomas added.

Similarly, Microsoft has had a hard time scaling its Windows operating system down to handheld devices, said International Data Corporation analyst Jill House. The company is "finding it's a little bit harder to scale down" than they expected.

"Look at the Palm phenomenon. Systems built from the ground up for a specific purpose tend to be better," she said.

However, whatever new hardware avenues AOL pursues will gain a lot of clout from the company. "If they subsidize a non-PC device, they could make it happen faster than WebTV could," Card said.

With Microsoft's huge market share in desktop computers, AOL will likely take an agnostic stance toward computers, focusing on selling its products and services to consumers rather than taking on Microsoft, said David Kerley, also of Jupiter Communications.

But AOL, with its commitments to using Java technology, certainly has aligned itself with Sun's anti-Microsoft plans.

In addition, AOL is rumored to be close to announcing a deal with Alcatel, a French company that has been showing off its Java-based Web phones.

"The qualities of Java itself are very appropriate for Net-based usages," Kerley said, and Alcatel's Web phone is a strong product. "It's not weird, like?prior products. It's very attractive," he said. An Alcatel-AOL deal "is a very logical move," given Alcatel's product and AOL's "demonstrated ability to market a product to consumers."

The hitch with Java devices is matching price points with Java's chip speed and memory footprint requirements, he said.

Retooling AOL services to make them work on devices without the broad capabilities of a desktop computer wouldn't be technically difficult, and indeed AOL has made several steps that are helpful in that direction, such as an increasing adoption of Internet standard protocols, a Web interface for its email, and its instant messaging, Kerley said.