The news last week that IBM had challenged its internal tech team to roll out desktop Linux throughout the organisation by the end of 2005 seemed like a real shot in the arm for the whole open-source-client alternative to Microsoft -- right up to the point when IBM began back-tracking faster than Tony Blair discussing Ken Livingstone.
A November memo from CIO Bob Greenberg, leaked to the Inquirer news site, reportedly said IBM chairman Sam Palmisano had "challenged the IT organisation, and indeed all of IBM, to move to a Linux-based desktop before the end of 2005." But in a furious bit of spin management, IBM spokeswoman Trink Guarino jumped all over the story and said that IBM was merely evaluating the idea of desktop Linux. "IBM has no plans to move all of its employees to Linux desktops by 2005," or even a majority of them, she said.
So just when it seemed that someone was prepared to put their head above the parapet and give the desktop Linux movement a hefty leg-up along comes the PR machine and yanks them down safely behind the battlements again. That's really inspiring for anyone thinking of trialling the technology, and surely a marketing triumph for Big Blue.
There must have been a furious exec meeting after the news of the leak broke, where IBM had a choice of three paths. One: stand by the document and its gutsy message; Two: fudge it and be non-committal; and Three: deny everything. Well, Big Blue settled on the middle road and showed once again why Microsoft has managed to dominate the desktop for so long. IBM UK wouldn't even comment on the story. Impressive.
But what about the rest of the big vendors? Well, Novell has made some of the right noises but hasn't as yet summoned up the courage to commit to a time-frame for a wholesale internal adoption. Speaking with Novell's UK managing director this week, I heard that the UK organisation was "aggressive" about adopting Linux, and welcomed the chance not to have to pay Microsoft any more licence fees, but wouldn't be drawn on when this might happen.
Which is kind of frustrating, because if anyone has got the motivation and opportunity to make the grand gesture to the rest of the industry and start eating its own dog food then it's Novell. This is a company that bought Linux tool vendor Ximian, followed by its very own Linux distributor in the shape of SuSE, and which has a very turbulent history with Microsoft. Novell should relish the opportunity to hit the Redmond boys where it hurts and be seen as a real gutsy innovator at the same time. The best I could get back from the MD was to wait and see what turns up at BrainShare in March when the company traditionally makes most of its big announcements.
The desktop Linux platform might not be very mature yet, with the likes of StarOffice and OpenOffice lacking some of the functionality of Microsoft Office, but these kinds of developments don't happen on paper. To create a viable, battle-tested product -- with the flexibility to satisfy the varying requirements of the different departments across an organisation -- what better than to actually roll it out across an organisation. And who would be best placed to develop code to plug whatever gaps emerge during the deployment? Sun, HP, IBM, Novell -- take your pick.
This doesn't have to happen overnight but making a commitment to achieve even a partial rollout over say the next two years would provide a massive confidence boost to those end-user organisations attracted by the concept of Linux on the desktop but nervously waiting for someone to make the first move.
A grand gesture by one of the vendors might help overcome some of the inertia surrounding the open-source desktop alternative. Although there is a lot of positive energy around the issue with the City of Munich replacing thousands of its out-of-date Windows desktops with Linux or the UK Public-spending watchdog the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) signing up to trial Sun's Java Desktop, there are also a lot of non-believers.
A September survey by analyst Gartner claimed that Linux desktops would not actually work out any cheaper than Windows for most enterprises. "Knowledge workers use PCs to run diverse combinations of applications," said Gartner vice president David Smith. "For those users, migration costs will be very high because all Windows applications must be replaced or rewritten." And the chief technology office of Barclay's bank recently rejected the whole concept on financial grounds and for reasons of scale: "If you do a fully absorbed cost analysis my perspective is that there isn't that degree of clear water between one equation and the other, not if you've got a well run environment. Believe me, we've done the numbers."
So it seems we are at a bit of an impasse, which will probably be solved over time -- but how much time? Surely one of the companies proudly shouting up and making money off the Penguin, HP -- which made some $2.5bn from Linux last year -- has actually got the guts to put its money where its mouth is?