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  • The Economist

More Balls Through Windows

Is Microsoft finally about to face real competition in desktop-computer software?

For years, hope has ebbed and flowed among many in the computer business that Linux, a freely available computer operating system which uses a penguin as its symbol, would become a viable alternative to Microsoft’s Windows, the near universal standard for the world’s personal computers. The industry—excluding Microsoft and its founder Bill Gates, of course—is currently riding another wave of hope. Will disappointment follow?

Within the past month, some of the world’s most powerful technology firms have pledged considerable support for Linux on the desktop. Hewlett-Packard (HP), which runs neck-and-neck with Dell as the largest seller of PCs in the world, said it will begin shipping some machines that run on Novell’s flavour of the free operating system, called SuSE Linux. And Sun Microsystems, an arch-rival of Microsoft, announced—even as it was preparing to bury the hatchet with Microsoft officially—that it had persuaded Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, to sell cheap PCs using Linux and Sun’s StarOffice suite of application programs, instead of the ubiquitous Microsoft Office. This follows a deal that Sun struck last autumn with several Chinese ministries to ship up to 1m PCs with Sun’s Linux package to China this year, rising to “tens of millions in future years,” according to Jonathan Schwartz, Sun’s chief operating officer.

Is this the beginning of the end for Microsoft’s virtual monopoly on the desktop? Certainly not right away, says Al Gillen, an analyst at IDC, a technology consultancy. Today, almost 94% of all PCs in the world run on Windows, while slightly more than 3%—mostly in creative industries and universities—use Apple’s Macintosh system. Fewer than 3% use Linux. By the end of the decade, Linux’s share could grow to 7-10%, reckons Mr Gillen, displacing Macs as the main alternative. That would still fall far short of Linux’s growing popularity in the market for powerful server computers. Linux aficionados, however, say its chances on the desktop should be much better.

They cite several reasons why. First, the quality of Linux—which like other open-source software is developed by a community of volunteers who share their work freely—has been rising steadily. Linux PCs are no longer just for geeks. Second, Microsoft itself looks temporarily chastened, if not weak. A series of worms and viruses has wrought havoc on Windows PCs. Microsoft faced further embarrassment this week when it warned about more security flaws in its software. Meanwhile Linux, which hackers tend not to target, looks safe in comparison. And distrust of Microsoft as a bullying monopolist remains high. Last month, the European Commission fined the company €497m ($612m) and ordered it to behave better.

More specifically, two windows, so to speak, of opportunity appear to be opening. One is that the next version of Windows, called Longhorn, has been delayed to 2006 at the earliest, in part by Microsoft’s realisation that it has to tighten up security a lot more. So, for the next two years, companies and home users thinking about updating their operating system might be reluctant to buy the current version, Windows XP, knowing it will soon be overtaken. Hence they may consider alternatives more seriously. If Linux can establish a good reputation during this period, it might look even more attractive once Longhorn, which will be expensive and is likely to require new hardware, is released. Linux, after all, can be very cheap: $100 per user if bought as part of Sun’s package, for instance. It can even be downloaded for nothing from the internet.

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