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For Microsoft, the release of its next operating system, known as “Longhorn,” tentatively scheduled for the holiday season 2006, will be the culmination of years of effort – and mark the first major new operating system for the company since 2001.

“It’s our big investment,” Bill Gates told a crowd of hardware developers in Seattle last month.

For many in the Linux community, Microsoft’s operating system release is seen as a huge opportunity to poach customers when they are faced with the decision of buying into the latest Microsoft vision or exploring alternatives.

“The Longhorn release will be a defining moment for the Linux community,” says Glenn Thomas, a vice president with Alacos, a company that helps migrate desktop applications from Windows to Linux.

Thomas says the desktop Linux community is hard at work right now, “trying to get things done so that when Longhorn launches, [companies have] a fair choice between desktop environments.”

Key to providing that choice, say developers, is strengthening the programs that help Windows-based companies switch to Linux. These include migration tools, which help transfer data (emails, documents, etc.) from Windows format into Linux versions; virtualization products that allow Windows programs to run on Linux systems; and Linux support for Windows-based legacy applications. 

Longhorn’s repeated delays have been bad for Microsoft on two fronts: first, it has frustrated hardware developers who look to new operating system releases – and the call to upgrade hardware – as manna from heaven. Second, it’s given the Linux community more time to build its products and its case in answer to companies’ concerns and needs.

“Any time there’s a new operating system, particularly a dramatically different one such as Longhorn, there’s always an opportunity to steal market share,” says Rob Enderle, principal analyst with The Enderle Group.

In the past, viable alternatives to Microsoft didn’t exist in the marketplace. The Linux community believes that with the appearance of Longhorn, for the first time, an alternative will exist – and they are laboring to convince businesses that there is a new choice.

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