MS break-up ‘serious threat’ to Linux firms

The perils of fair competition...

Breaking up Microsoft will prove to be very bad news for the some of the software company's most ardent opponents - most of whom, ironically, have been actively lobbying for the giant's break-up. That, at least, is what market research company IDC reckons.

And it has a point. IDC's logic is based on the freedom of manoeuvre a spun-off Microsoft applications division would gain from being rid of the pressures placed upon it by the operating system business. Safe from the need to promote Windows, the apps company could explore competing OS markets, and in IDC's view, that means offering a Linux version of Office.

The precedent here is Microsoft's support for the Mac version of Office, which has always proved a money-spinner, and was only in danger of being cancelled - it emerged during the Microsoft anti-trust trial - when Apple got (understandably) stroppy over QuickTime.

Office for Linux would compete directly with Corel's WordPerfect Office, Applix's ApplixWare and Sun's StarOffice. Both Sun and Corel have been keen to promote their products as the killer applications that will make Linux a must in the mainstream, primarily to help them compete with Microsoft.

And IDC is right: Corel and Applix would be hit hard by the arrival of Office for Linux, a far better known - and, well, just better - product than those two. It also comes with a far better established sales channel and marketing budget behind it. But then the motor for such a market is competition, and right now there's little of that in the Linux apps market.

Sun, however, is another matter. After all, StarOffice is free, and is more about getting computer users to migrate from Windows than anything else. In either respect Office for Linux is good news: Sun will always have users because it's product doesn't cost anything, so Office is no real threat to it, and free from Windows, a Microsoft apps company doesn't really care about which OS people use, as long as they use its productivity apps.

IDC's logic - at least as it's reported by CNet, appears to ignore the issue of open source software, which many observers - most notably, perhaps, Red Hat founder Bob Young - believe would be a major hindrance to Microsoft's moves on the Linux market. Presumably, IDC ignores it because it's not that much of an issue. Linux may be founded on open source principles, but the mainstream software market isn't. Provided it's free of third-party open source code, there's no reason why Office for Linux has to be an open source product. Corel's suite isn't, and neither is Applix's, as far as we're aware.

Even if Microsoft did release the source code, there are plenty of folk out there who would cough up for fancy packaging, manuals, CDs and tech support, so again, open source really isn't much of a issue.

What should concern the Linux world, says IDC, is the possibility of a Microsoft version of Linux. "What would stop them from coming up with Microsoft Linux?" said IDC senior analyst Dan Kusnetzky. "They'd have command of every major channel and partner. That would make it very difficult for Red Hat to get any attention in the channels."

Again, he has a point. You might think the spun-off Microsoft OS company would prefer to promote Windows, and it certainly would. But there's an argument for saying that since it can't get Windows on every single server out there - much as it would want to - it's enough to get Microsoft on every single server, and if that means attacking the x per cent of the market that refuses to go with Windows with Linux, so be it. Particularly if Windows customers are given a discount on Windows for offering Microsoft Linux.

Ironically, as an OS-only operation, that part of Microsoft would be more strongly inclined to expand its product portfolio in such a fashion than it is now. Would might even see Windows 2000 for Power Mac...

Of course, providing the Baby Bills with the opportunity to target the Linux market doesn't mean they will, but it they would certainly have think very hard before rejecting it. That will come as harsh news for developing Linux businesses, but then competition is what the free market is all about. And a broken-up Microsoft is about ensuring that that competition is fair. ®

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