A Ray of Hope for Desktop Linux

Steve Hamm

Linux has had a major impact on the server end of corporate computing, but, so, far not too much action on the desktop. The reasons are clear: Microsoft's Windows and Office products totally dominate and its hard to compete with network effects. Desktop Linux has only a couple of percentage points of market share. I don't see anything on the horizon that seems likely to change that, but, for Linux fans, here's a ray of hope: IBM, one of the penguin's biggest backers, is releasing a version of its Notes communications and collaboration software designed to run on Linux. Unless you have important applications running on Linux, you won't have corporations adopting it en masse. And Notes, with 125 million users worldwide, qualifies as an important application.

IBM's release of Notes is interesting on its own, but, under the covers it signals a notable advance in the craft of writing software. The massive program was developed using the Eclipse programming framework, an open source project designed to make it easier, faster, and cheaper to create new software packages. Thanks to Eclipse, IBM was able to produce the Linux version of Notes in just one year--and nearly a year ahead of its original projections. But that's just the beginning of the savings. Eclipse allows IBM to maintain a single code base for Notes going forward for its Windows, Linux, and, soon, Macintosh versions. That means it, essentially, only has to maintain, patch, and upgrade one application. "We probably never would have made the investment in Notes for Linux if we didn't have this," says Danny Sabbah, general manager of IBM's Rational Software unit.

What are the prospects for Notes on Linux? It's likely to be a slow uptake. Even IBM itself still uses Windows on most of its PCs. IBM is putting some marketing muscle behind it, though. Under its "Migrate to the Penguin" program, Big Blue pays business partners and software resellers incentives of $20 per user, up to $20,000, for migrating customers from Microsoft Outlook/Exchange to Lotus Notes on Linux. It has signed up 100 partners for the initiative.

The Lotus business has been growing robustly recently, but analysts I talk to believe Outlook and Exchange have more momentum. IBM's best hope for making headway here is to appeal to companies that want to run their communications and collaboration software across the three major operating systems--rather than just on Windows. By itself, this initiative won't make desktop Linux into a hot seller, but it's another log on the fire.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.