Get a Linux desktop - and lose your cozy office!

David Coursey: Sun Microsystems says the alternative open-source OS will help it reduce real estate costs. But that's not the only reason that Sun - as well as IBM, HP, Intel, and others - are falling more and more in love with Linux.

Here's one for all you desktop Linux proponents: if Scott McNealy has his way, you'll lose your office! At least if you work at Sun Microsystems, you will. We know this because chief executive McNealy said so during his LinuxWorld keynote on Tuesday. He declared that Linux is going to drive the company's iWork program, which has the goal of increasing the number of workers per office companywide from 0.8 employees to 1.8 employees per office.

Sun will be able to shove nearly two people into every office -- and cube, more likely -- because the software will allow them to log on from any workstation, anywhere. McNealy said this proves you don't need Microsoft Windows to do your work, although how Linux would be different from Sun's Solaris OS in powering such a project, I really don't understand.

Since I know many readers of this column are big proponents of desktop Linux, I thought this was something I should share with you. Please start gathering up your personal stuff, the pictures of the kids, the plant...

McNealy isn't just embracing Linux as a way to squeeze more blood out of his own real estate holdings. Because of Sun's partnership with Ximian to improve the Gnome Linux and Unix graphical interface software, the news at LinuxWorld also focused on the prospect that Sun will soon offer its own line of Linux-based desktops. These systems may be part and parcel, as my colleague Dan Farber points out, of McNealy's grand plan and personal obsession of breaking Microsoft's grip on the computing world.

Sun's LinuxWorld pronouncements prove something else, too. Even though trade shows aren't what they used to be, this LinuxWorld seemed more important to me than its smallish size would suggest. Why? Because it demonstrated the tremendous interest big players -- like Sun, IBM, HP, Intel, Computer Associates, and others -- have in the Linux market. Heck, even Microsoft was there -- more about that in a moment.

Sure, these companies have previously played in the Unix market, mostly with varying degrees of lukewarm success. But Linux may be different. Big vendors are finally accepting Linux as the unified Unix that customers wanted, but vendors like Sun never delivered. Maybe it will happen this time. Or perhaps this is just smoke and mirrors for companies biding their time before getting back to their old proprietary games.

Sun, for example, is a company that did as much as anyone to take "open system" Unix and turn it into a proprietary environment, Solaris. For all the posing, I don't see how Linux can do anything but hurt Sun, though. At some point, aren't many Linux servers going to be machines that would earlier have run Solaris? Except these machines will have Intel processors -- and no Sun content at all.

I had the chance to do a brief radio interview with Scott McNealy, and posed the question about Linux hurting Sun. He responded that it was quite the opposite, because anything that's good for Unix is good for Sun. This may be true if the size of the overall Unix market grows as a result of Linux. My bet, however, is that Linux and, to a much lesser extent, Apple's Unix-based OS X, will drag down sales of all the other Unix variants. And that, in the end, will be to Sun's disadvantage.

By the way, I have met Scott before, but my tendency has been to forget he's a guy with degrees from Harvard and Stanford, and to peg him as an overgrown jock given to using automobile and sports metaphors when he's supposed to be talking about computers.

That assessment was unduly harsh. Despite having just finished an hour-long keynote followed by 30 minutes of questions, McNealy radiated tremendous energy and passion. This was particularly evident when he was answering my questions about corporate governance and loans to employees. If you want to hear why such loans are a good idea, McNealy does a good job explaining it. You may still disagree, but he answered the question -- his blood pressure inching up the more he talked about how Congress is trying to tell him how to run his company.

Eventually, McNealy asked to change the topic, which I was happy to do since time was short and we had other matters to discuss. Still, I was tremendously impressed with the man and look forward to talking with him again sometime.

Out on the show floor, we recorded a brief video segment. Most of the stuff I discovered won't be incredibly new to people who follow Linux -- this is a trade show, after all -- but I still found it interesting.

I talked to Sharp, which is working mightily to make its Zaurus Linux-based PDA into a real contender. Now, this is a PDA I've never wanted to even touch, based on the early reviews. But Sharp is putting together an online service to go with the device, as well as a new, $149 CDPD wireless modem. If the inexpensive modem isn't enough of a deal for you, all-you-can-eat connectivity (admittedly slow connectivity) is only $39.95 a month.

I also actually got to see Microsoft Office running atop Linux, thanks to the work of a company called CodeWeavers. I didn't spend any time playing with it, but now that I have a copy of the software and a Linux machine to run it on, I am looking forward to trying it.

As I said, Microsoft was there, with a small (compared to the other big companies) booth. Microsoft people in gray polo shirts seemed to be conversing most amiably with the large number of Linux people who dropped by. Maybe we really can learn to just get along.

I can't finish a Linux column without saying I remain sceptical about desktop Linux and really, truly believe Apple OS X is the desktop Unix for the masses. But there can be no question that LinuxWorld demonstrated growing momentum for Linux servers. And that's a good thing for both customers and the marketplace in which we all reside.

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