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The Linux Longhorn Challenge

Open Source Developers race to get applications and migrations tools in top form before the launch of Microsoft’s next operating system.

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.

But in order to successfully convince people to convert to Linux, says Enderle, the Linux community needs to do some heavy lifting, building the programs that make the transition smooth and cost efficient.

“If you don’t do this work, you can’t be surprised at how few people move to your platform,” says Enderle.

It’s a lesson many in the Linux community are working to learn by building software that makes it easier to port Windows-based applications and data to the Linux environment.

Mark Hinkle, a vice-president at Win4Lin, an Austin, Texas-based company that makes Windows-based legacy applications work in Linux, says his company is concentrating on the small-to-midsized business segment and is already seeing success.

“It’s being done,” he says, noting that companies are beginning to make the switch to Linux from Windows. Some of the key selling points that Hinkle and others use in courting IT centers is the total cost of ownership, extending the life of their existing hardware, and giving IT people a choice of vendors.  

Thomas and others are hoping this early momentum builds, and say two factors will play to Linux’s advantage when Longhorn debuts and companies must choose whether to stay with Microsoft or explore alternatives.

First, according to analysts, many of Longhorn’s graphics and security features will require users to purchase new hardware – an additional cost and management concern that may dampen enthusiasm for an upgrade. Second, by the holiday season 2006, several different case studies of successful migrations will be out, providing companies with a viable alternative.

“People are freaked out to do this, and nobody wants to be first [to abandon Windows],” says Thomas. “But when you see successful case studies come out and see the ease and the cost savings, it will be an easier sell.”

Thomas says many of the cases studies are underway right now, with many users expected to begin reporting their experiences in the next six months.

When these studies arrive – with data to back up what are now assertions – companies will realize they have a choice, says Thomas.

“How will Microsoft get people to upgrade to Longhorn when there’s a valid competitor?” he says. “I’d be terrified to be the Microsoft manager tasked with that.”

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