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Why AOL doesn't need Linux – that much

Linux might do all sorts of cute things, but not always the ones AOL wants

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Opinion Before we get too excited about AOL's rumoured plans for Linux-based Web access devices (see Related Story), we should ask ourselves a few questions. Why would AOL want them, how would their existence further AOL's plans, and who's going to build them? The answers to these questions may involve Linux to some extent, but although you'll find plenty of people who'll say AOL putting out Linux boxes is a great idea, you have to bear in mind that the destruction of Microsoft's monopoly is not AOL's primary objective, no matter how much you might wish it was. Look at what AOL really wants instead. The company wants to stay the biggest, and is smart enough to be aware of several related trends. First of all we've got the (much postponed) rise of the appliance for Web access. AOL recognised this when it cheekily said "AOL Anywhere" a lot at the time of the Netscape deal. This doesn't mean PCs will cease exist or that PCs will suddenly stop being the primary mechanism for Internet access, but it does mean that the Web will be accessed by increasingly diverse devices which will ultimately outnumber the PCs. AOL knows this, and has relatively vague plans to be there when these devices start to sell (or get given away) in numbers. AOL's view of itself as turning into some kind of TV company (of the interactive persuasion, naturally) relates to this. Content and programming is one aspect of this, and set-top boxes another. That takes us a little closer to Linux, certainly. Then there's voice and video communications - AOL also, obviously, has to be there too, so it has to have a screenphone capability. But Linux of itself doesn't help AOL with much of this. In the PC space, even the low-cost PC space, AOL doesn't have to do anything serious at all. Whichever OS wins any platform war that hasn't even started yet, PCs and PC browsers will still be used to access AOL, so no problem there for AOL. If we think of the PC platform moving more into the home, at even lower cost, then there is a possible Linux angle, but that's a question for PC manufacturers, not for AOL. Some PC company might adopt Linux in order to cut hardware costs and cut the Microsoft share of the cost completely. That PC manufacturer also might reckon AOL endorsement of the boxes would be helpful, but AOL wouldn't put any serious money into a deal. (AOL doesn't, usually - it's that kind of company). In a similar vein, you might consider the possibility of such a PC being shrunk a little further to produce an Internet access box that was a little PC-like, and a little like a set-top box. These kinds of devices demand that AOL has a PC partner, but that's feasible - there are plenty of volume-hungry PC companies out there, and they're all worried about missing out on the Next Big Thing. Still, it doesn't automatically mean Linux - it might mean PC companies using Linux to gouge better deals out of Microsoft. And, as we said, AOL just wants the consumers, it doesn't care about the platform. You could however call that a transitional market that may exist on the road to real appliances - wireless devices, screenphones, AOL Anywhere kind of kit. Microsoft operating systems aren't appropriate for these but, wouldn't you know it, neither is Linux. You want a really cheap piece of hardware with a minimal operating system, minimalist browser and the ability to run programs remotely, and guess what - Linux might be slimmer than Windows, but it's still too fat for this area. Sure, you could slim it down to the extent where it could compete with CE, but guess what else - CE's too fat as well, and is only making headway with the aid of billions of Microsoft bucks (e.g. $5 billion to AT&T). So why bother competing with something that's not successful? Basically, although there are quite a few companies building slimmer, cheaper Linux clients, the OS wasn't designed for ultraslim devices, and given that there are plenty of operating systems that were, there's no real point in redesigning it for them - that's the kind of dumb thing Microsoft does. If the AOL Anywhere strategy goes anywhere, then it will do so via deals with big manufacturers of phones and pocket appliances, and those manufacturers will rightly reckon the likes of Palm and Symbian's EPOC are more appropriate. AOL might wind up doing something with Sun here, given that Sun was the major backer/bankroller of the Netscape deal, but that would depend on Sun actually wanting high volume, low margin device business - it might not. Or there's even Caldera's other OS, DR-DOS, which already is slim enough for set-top boxes and ultra low-cost PCs, some of which have even shipped. ®

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