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Time for IBM to choose sides

IBM may have been able to take a pragmatic approach to Linux up until now, but the battle for the desktop is going to be fierce and bloody

Our interview with open-source zealot Richard Stallman is a great example of the passion that Linux and other community-developed software can engender. Just as George W Bush's government has polarised the US electorate -– the open-source debate has spilt the IT vendor community.

But just like politics, there are the passionate players and pragmatic players. Pure open-source companies such as JBoss, Mandrakesoft and Red Hat are betting the farm that the community approach to software is the way forward. They owe their existence to the open-source model and are suitably zealous about its importance.

Then there are the likes of Sun, Novell, IBM and HP who are taking a more cynical, measured approach -- proprietary companies choosing to appropriate elements of the open-source movement where it suits them.

These players have more or less accepted that Linux is now a very real part of the server landscape to the detriment of their Unix alternatives -- if they don't back open source their competitors will, and just as importantly so will the application developers. This may have been painful, but in the case of IBM and Novell they quickly realised that there is money to be made from Linux services.

However this pragmatic approach may become increasingly difficult to maintain as Linux spreads beyond the server to become a more acceptable choice on the desktop. Sun and Novell have a lot to gain from the threat which Linux poses to Microsoft's desktop dominance and are backing it wholeheartedly. IBM is in a trickier position.

Big Blue is keen to be seen as the wise old man of the industry, standing above the fray, taking an impartial, non-partisan view of the open-source squabbling: vital to maintain the credibility of its services businesses.

But IBM also has a software business -- one which would benefit enormously from Linux biting into Microsoft's desktop business. Case in point: IBM is pushing its Workplace software as a real competitor to Microsoft Office. As well as some other productivity apps, Workplace is essentially Lotus Notes Groupware, albeit bundled and integrated with IBM WebSphere, a product that took an enormous hammering in the 90s from Microsoft Exchange and Outlook.

These competing agendas must be causing a lot of confusion within IBM -- the recent u-turn over deploying desktop Linux internally is a great example. More worrying is the confused message being given to customers. IBM may not want to get into a "religious war" over the Linux desktop but given how much Microsoft has got to lose this is not going to be a fight they can stay out for much longer.