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Perspective: Fearing the penguins--for good reason

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper writes that the accelerating penetration of Linux into the corporate world creates new opportunities for IBM and new headaches for Microsoft.

What do you know? Microsoft was right about Linux all along.

Back in 1998, when lawyers for the software company tried to debunk the federal government's monopoly charge against it, they argued that the dynamics of an operating system market were inherently fluid.

That was good for a chuckle.

Then Microsoft's attorneys began to talk about the competitive threat posed by the Linux open-source operating system as proof the government was talking out of its hat.

That brought the house down.

Cynics dismissed the argument as a transparent ploy to convince a doubting judge. The thrashing then being meted out to Microsoft by lead government attorney David Boies came close to constituting a crime against humanity. Any argument was worth a shot, but this one was the equivalent of a "Hail Mary" pass in the waning moments of a game.

If IBM pulls it off, Microsoft risks getting cut out of a lot of corporate business. The various responses out of Redmond suggest that management does not have an obvious answer to the open-source question.

However with the passage of years, it's clear that--whatever the original motivation--Microsoft's strategists had more insight into Linux than most of the critics.

Linux on Intel-based computers is now likely to become the dominant platform in corporate data centers, according to a recent report from investment bank Goldman Sachs. That puts even more pressure on Microsoft to persuade Unix users to stick with its Windows operating system on Intel systems rather than move to Linux. (That's no easy feat these days.) Indeed, if it fails to stop the groundswell, Microsoft may be forced to radically rethink its strategy as none of the company's server platform products now run on Linux. One scenario offered by analysts at First Boston has Microsoft switching gears and supporting Linux on key subsystems like Exchange and SQL Server and the .Net framework.

And then there's the IBM factor to consider.

Windows trounced OS/2 in a furious operating systems battle back when George Bush Sr. was president and Lou Gerstner was still busy at RJR Nabisco trying to sell folks more Velveeta and Tang.

Smartly retiring from a contest it had little chance of winning, IBM left the field to Microsoft, which cemented its desktop dominance and emerged as the most powerful software company in history.

There things stood for over a decade, but--F. Scott Fitzgerald aside--there are second acts. In this rematch with Microsoft, Big Blue has the stronger hand, owing to its very public embrace of Linux three years ago.

Bill Gates once derided the "Pac-Man-like nature" of the General Public License (GPL) that governs the distribution of open-source code.

IBM is bent on making a commodity out of Intel-based hardware with an operating system derived through the open-source process. Its pitch to corporate Unix customers running Sun Microsystems' Sparc or other proprietary chips is that Linux on Intel offers virtually the same performance--but at a far lower hardware price. Once they bite, that then opens the door for IBM to rake in the money selling middleware and services.

If IBM pulls it off, Microsoft risks getting cut out of a lot of corporate business. The various responses out of Redmond suggest that management does not have an obvious answer to the open-source question.

Bill Gates once derided the "Pac-Man-like nature" of the General Public License (GPL) that governs the distribution of open-source code. His trusted associate, Jim Allchin, even suggested it was "an intellectual-property destroyer."

All that played poorly in the press and even worse with customers who couldn't fathom how it was relevant to their business. Microsoft has since dropped the smear campaign in favor of technology comparisons that focus on a discussion of tools, the .Net framework and ways to make a company's developers more productive. Execs also are playing up what they see as the benefits of a tight integration model with a single sign-on, a common management infrastructure and a consistent user experience.

Corporate customers hearing of Microsoft's new company line at LinuxWorld in New York this week won't make up their minds about all this overnight. But with spending still tight, the question of whether to buy an integrated offering or a service solution gets trumped by a simpler consideration: The stuff has to work and not cost an arm and a leg.

And that is simply music to the ears of the penguinistas.