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Can Linux duck the Redmond death ray?

Bill Gates is scared of penguins. That's why CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says Microsoft needs to lure Linux developers under its influence. There's just one problem: Microsoft doesn?t have a fighting chance.

Stuck in a corner of San Francisco?s Moscone Center, Microsoft?s contingent at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo resembled more a band of spies than an army ready for battle.

This was Microsoft?s first official attendance at a Linux convention--an appearance that spoke volumes about the company's debate over how to best respond to the "Penguinista" challenge. This is the same company, remember, whose senior execs have long treated the open-source movement with thinly veiled distrust, if not open contempt.

Yet at the same time, Microsoft understands that Linux may be the biggest threat to its domination of the desktop since Janet Reno and her legions at the Justice Department. Some Redmond insiders would love to crush Linux, but it?s way too late for that. And so it becomes all the more important to engage the Linux community--if not co-opt it.

"We?re getting a lot of good response from people here," said a predictably cheerful Microsoft staffer at the show. While handing out "information," he was only too willing to explain how Microsoft could help Linux work even better.

Each approach has its pros and cons, but one can?t easily finesse the difference between the two points of view.

Maybe so, but it would not be a match made in software heaven, so to speak. While I was standing there, a convention attendee strolled by, taunting the Microsoft booth boys with cries of, "shame, shame, shame!"

Granted, Microsoft?s been called worse over the years (how about predatory monopolist?) so any temporarily hurt feelings won?t deflect the company from finding a way to "embrace and extend" Linux in much the same way it tried to recast Java in Windows? image.

That's where Microsoft wants to head, though I?m not sure it?s possible--any more than it is to imagine Linus Torvalds entering into a coding partnership with Bill Gates. Perhaps even more than their Java compadres, Linux developers aren't ready to drink the Redmond Kool-Aid quite yet.

Linux represents a tradition that supports community control over code standards, while Microsoft prefers to own the crown jewels of its software empire. Each approach has its pros and cons, but one can?t easily finesse the difference between the two points of view.

Microsoft?s right when it says few big Windows NT customers are ripping out their expensive software infrastructure to install Linux systems. Of course, that's today--will it hold true tomorrow? As more young companies grow, I?ll bet lots of them will conclude that Linux is for them.

Network computer redux?
Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy, who rolled into town this week for the LinuxWorld convention, would concur. But there?s more Linux tricks up Sun's sleeve. The company is getting ready to introduce a Linux-based personal computer that would include Sun's StarOffice collection of software applications.

Although a low-end Linux desktop wouldn't technically qualify as a network computer, it would be a means to the same end.

McNealy, who was wrong about the network computer, just might be on to something this time.

When Sun--and Oracle--first talked up the concept of the network computer in 1997, much was made of its potential as an alternative to a Microsoft-centric PC world. The general idea was to offer stripped-down access terminals that would connect to a network, where most of the computing muscle and complexity resides (a world presumably powered by big Sun servers, of course). Unfortunately for Sun, early customer enthusiasm faded after the price of many Windows-based computers fell below $500.

Sun may have been a victim of timing, but since then, a lot has changed. Microsoft, a convicted predatory monopolist, still grapples with its corporate image in the post-Enron era. Also, the software giant isn't winning many friends with a new, more expensive licensing plan that many customers find onerous. All the while, Linux is getting a serious look in corporate America as an alternative operating system.

Although a low-end Linux desktop wouldn't technically qualify as a network computer, it would be a means to the same end: Elbow aside Microsoft but keep rivals (such as Dell Computer) away from bread-and-butter accounts, such as call centers, which use Sun's more-expensive servers.

Will it work? Assuming Sun doesn't trip on its delivery, corporate customers might just be receptive this time around. And the clincher would be Linux.