Microsoft faces a serious open source press

Von Oliver Rist

If there"s one thing I learned from my recent sojourn into the depths of Microsoft"s future vision, it"s that the concept and popularity of open source software has shaken Redmond to its core. Much of this new vision is the direct result of how Linux and open source have galvanized Redmond"s management team. This is why Microsoft has upped the feature ante on so many platforms at once: to overwhelm customers with new technologies you simply can"t get from open source.

The upside is obvious. Flash as much glitz and glamour at customers from as many angles as possible, then implement the same selling tradition that"s worked in the past: Interlink the sexiest features such that they bridge product lines. One product wants another, which wants another, and so on. Customers not only spend more; they become inexorably tied to Windows.

Except it isn"t working as well as it used to. The arrival of competitors -- quality competitors -- from the open source sector has not only shaken Microsoft, it"s opened the eyes of an ever-broadening spectrum of third-party manufacturers, partners, and end-users. Hey, competition in a semi-free market. Love that.

And it"s not just the smaller open source orgs anymore, either, nor larger software competitors that harbor a borderline jihad-esque hatred for Microsoft.

Last week, three hardware vendors stepped away from the Wintel alliance and began exploring other options. Dell announced its "open source" PC, the E510n. This puppy ships with a fairly standard desktop feature set, but includes only a blank hard disk and a CD containing FreeDOS. The idea is that Penguin lovers can now go straight to installing their favorite distros without having to wipe Windows first. HP announced it would begin shipping its PCs with the Netscape 8 Web browser pre-installed. And Lenovo has decided to begin bundling StarOffice 8 with one of its ThinkPad models.

Naturally, there are caveats to all these announcements. For one, the folks at The Register reported trying to buy a Dell "open-source" PC only to find that based on a standard Web sales experience, the E510n wound up being slightly more expensive than a comparable Dell with Windows XP. Whoops. Dell customer service helped them around this issue, but the price difference still isn"t all that compelling.

For its part, HP isn"t offering Netscape 8 instead of Internet Explorer, but merely in addition to it. And one of the key features of Netscape 8 is the ability for users to dynamically switch between the IE and Firefox browsing engines.

And finally, ThinkPad customers have long been accustomed to alternate productivity suite options, mainly Lotus SmartOffice. So now, it"s StarOffice. Not really all that earth-shaking, considering it"s an ex-IBM product.

I"m not pooh-poohing these efforts. They certainly smack of an interesting new trend to watch: the growing popularity of Microsoft alternatives. My caveats, however, do point out that the trend is starting small.

But it"s a trend nonetheless, and it promises to make the next few years interesting in many ways. Expect to see more margin in price/performance. Be careful selecting what you buy and how you buy it, and you"ve got a much better chance of scoring a more noticeable win for your organization. IT management is going to be more fun as new and different applications begin to interact with one another on a much larger scale.

And finally, it"ll be even more interesting to see how Microsoft reacts. Just because there are options, it doesn"t mean Microsoft is beaten, or even hurting. But Redmond is reacting. And when this company puts its full weight behind a reaction, the results can be fascinating, and can present us with even more options to choose from. Chaos, competition, open source, and Microsoft; it may be a bit confusing, but it can only mean good things in the long run.