Is the IBM Client for Smart Work an alternative to 7 for schools?

Windows 7 looks like a genuinely good OS. Reasonable system requirements, high levels of usability and stability...

Windows 7 looks like a genuinely good OS. Reasonable system requirements, high levels of usability and stability...What's not to like? Well, the price, of course. Volume educational licensing runs around $70 a seat for Windows 7 Professional upgrades. Then there's the actual upgrade process. Major rollouts (like new operating systems, enterprise-wide) are mighty disruptive during a school year.

However, upgrades are eventually inevitable. We can't keep using Windows XP forever, right? (Right?) In many cases, Windows 7 will filter into organizations via new equipment. For schools, upgrades, whether hardware or software tend to happen over breaks, so we have a while to think about exactly how we want to move on from Windows XP or Vista (or if we even do). IBM and Canonical, though, are asking if that upgrade path really needs to involve Windows at all.

The IBM Client for Smart Work (ICSW) is a combination of IBM Lotus-branded productivity software (either client- or cloud-based), Ubuntu Linux, and IBM's cloud storage solutions. I initially highlighted this a few weeks ago when the company rolled it out in Africa, asking

Is this another nail in OLPC’s coffin or will their innovative designs and potential advancements in 1:1 pedagogy be enough for them to be a player in this field? We’ll watch the education space carefully now that cheap, Linux-powered netbooks are becoming mainstream instead of a novelty from American academics.

Not surprisingly, IBM and Canonical saw a market for this in the States as Thursday's Windows 7 release has everyone thinking migration. Why migrate to Windows, though, when your client machines can run Ubuntu with its regular, straight-forward updates, your users can store their data in IBM's robust cloud, and IBM's productivity and groupware software (also with regular updates, some of which are transparent on the cloud-based apps) are thrown into the mix?

IBM claims lower prices and lower TCO, an all-around easier software maintenance regime, superior groupware solutions, and solid cloud integration. In education, I'd buy everything except the lower TCO, since not only can we leverage educational pricing from Microsoft, but schools with a Microsoft infrastructure already in place have relatively easy management (and therefore, relatively low TCO). As Ars Technica points out,

There seem to be a lot of potential cost-saving opportunities for companies that adopt Linux and Web-based cloud productivity services, but the relative cost of a Windows 7 migration might not be as steep as IBM wants customers to believe.

It isn't clear exactly what the cost of these services bundled together would be. Right now, they are custom-packaged for businesses and no educational pricing has been posted (or mentioned). I'll post responses from IBM when I hear back regarding their educational vision, if it even exists.

What is clear is that LotusLive is a really robust solution for communicating, meeting, collaborating, and sharing in the cloud. Lotus Symphony (their version of OpenOffice) is a perfectly adequate, free productivity suite. Ubuntu 9.10 is a highly competitive OS. There are a lot of interesting things you can already do in IBM's test cloud (this isn't for the faint of heart yet - read the directions). All of this can even be delivered virtually. A version of ICSW based on Ubuntu 8.04 can even be downloaded here.

Microsoft obviously also has a few tricks up its sleeves with compelling cloud-based and on-premises services, as well as a really likable OS. Google, for its part, is giving away its really usable Apps to schools, which, when combined with Chrome, make the Windows underneath largely irrelevant for many users.

So what does all this mean? I don't know if ICSW is a real alternative for schools given that their educational pricing (if it exists) isn't clear. What I do know, however, is that there are now three potential competitors in the desktop-augmented-with-cloud-services space that could all serve educational needs well. Google Apps for Education, Microsoft Live@Edu/OutlookLive/Live Web Apps, and the IBM Client for Smart Work. I just love the smell of competition.