Competitive lessons from the past will help us understand how well Linux can do against next-generation Windows.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

November 19, 2003

3 Min Read

Still, Microsoft moved between 25 million and 30 million Windows 95 licenses in the last four months of 1995.

So what happened to Apple and IBM? They predicted this was the same old Microsoft, that the product would ship late, was clearly not as good technically as either OS/2 or the MacOS, and it would fail in the market. In other words they took a best-case scenario and based their competitive response on it and, as a result, they bet wrong.

As we approach the release of Windows 2005 we have two new competing platforms: Linux and Mac OS X (Panther). Guessing how Linux will change in 2005 is difficult because their is no roadmap (and no cute naming scheme). But we can expect Linux to simply be a linear improvement over what is available now. This means Linux will still have multiple distributions, multiple user interfaces, and, with the recent acquisitions Novell/SuSE/Ximian will likely come the closest to having the solution that can match up against Windows 2005.

Apple doesn't release a roadmap either but given Apple's proclivity for cool names Cheetah seems to be a likely next name for their OS, and it will also be a linear improvement, basically a better Panther.

The lack of a major release for Linux and the MacOS should actually be an advantage for those technologies, because a major release requires substantial testing and is adopted relatively slowly by businesses. However, this advantage doesn't mean the Linux community and Apple can stand still, because, like Windows 95, Windows 2005 will be moving the bar a lot.

The lesson of Windows 95 is that the dominant vendor doesn't have to be better than competing platforms, it only has to be good enough. Windows 2005 is likely to be "good enough," with some potential advantages.

Those advantages will be development tools (Microsoft remains at its core a development tools company), performance (designed to use the Intel P5 and Athlon 64 platforms from scratch), partners, integration, and a built-in trust relationship (critical for on-line transactions, patching, services, and digital rights management). Linux can match Windows 2005 on performance and trust. Like Windows, Linux runs on Intel. And IBM is leading the effort, with Intel's support, to support Intel's trusted computing technology on Linux, the same technology that Microsoft is using in Windows 2005.

Apple will have some serious problems because the Apple hardware platform will not be able to create customer demand comparable to what Linux could do. To generate that kind of demand, Apple will need to either move to Intel, or get significant help from its hardware partner, IBM. IBM won't help broadly unless both the IBM PC business unit and IBM Microelectronics cooperate, and the PC company may not want to undercut its own sales of PC-based systems and they are strategically tied to Linux and Microsoft today.

One sustained advantage that Linux will have against Microsoft is pricing, and this will be most pronounced in the Third World. With the increase in outsourcing, which Linux accelerates, this Third World preference could nicely balance Microsoft's technical achievements worldwide. Apple is at much greater risk and, unless Microsoft stumbles badly, will have a great deal of difficulty competing with Windows 2005 and Linux based PCs in the critical 4th quarter of 2005. Being third of three in what likely is a two horse race is clearly problematic for them.

In 1995 the competing vendors, both desktop and server, choose rhetoric as their counter-strategy to Microsoft. It didn't work. This time, the competitors will need to step up to this challenge and actually write more code, rather than send e-mail and marketing collateral. Regardless of how this competition comes out, the user is sure to benefit from it.

Rob Enderle heads the Enderle Group and spends his time building PCs, exploring emerging personal technology, and helping clients avoid expensive mistakes. You can write him at [email protected].

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