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Why IBM won't Do Desktop Linux

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Bob Sutor, IBM's VP of open source, seemed to once again throw desktop Linux under the bus this week at Linuxcon:

Possible futures for the Linux desktop - the full list from LinuxCon:

"1. It goes away.

2. We stop using desktops, so who cares?

3. The Linux desktop becomes a tactic instead of a strategy.

4. One Linux desktop distribution ends up with 90% marketshare among those using Linux desktops.

5. One Linux desktop distribution ends up with 90% marketshare among all desktops.

6. We reach 33% / 33% / 33% parity with Microsoft® Windows® / Apple® Mac OS® / Linux, plus or minus.

7. We stop pretending that it will be a drop-in replacement for the dominant desktop operating system, and make it something better.

8. The enterprise sweet spot for Linux desktops is virtualized Linux desktops.

9. We focus on usability, stability, security, reliability, performance, with some cool thrown in.

10. It's the browser, stupid."

What's wrong with this list?

Nothing really, as it presents a clear picture of IBM's attitudes in regards to Linux.

Let's start with a little trip down memory lane. IBM Thinkpads were favorites amongst Linux users for years and years. What did IBM ever do to to show its appreciation for its loyal Linux Thinkpad users? Who paid the Microsoft tax even when they didn't want to use Windows, and jumped through all kinds of hoops to install Linux and get all the hardware working? Not much, some information pages but never official support. Which shows once again that it is a mistake to support vendors that treats its Linux customers as second-class citizens; the "if we be nice to them they'll be nice to us!" tactic does not work.

Now that Lenovo is the official Thinkpad vendor it's worse than ever. They've made a couple of feeble attempts at selling Linux boxes, but sabotaged themselves so skillfully it never worked. You couldn't even find the alleged Linux Thinkpads on Lenovo.com. Though here is a funny thing: if you go to Lenovo.com and enter "linux" in their Search box, it finds a bunch of links--- to pages on Ibm.com. Why? Because when IBM sold its PC division it retained an 18.9% equity stake in Lenovo. So IBM is still in the PC desktop business.

This whole arrangement is bizarre, it's like Lenovo is the grouchy spouse who goes around offending Linux users, and IBM tags along behind apologizing and trying to smooth things over. I saved the best punchline for last: Lenovo's slogan, "New World. New Thinking."

Point #9 is already here. The Linux desktop has been outperforming Windows for a long time, which is a low standard to beat. Apple has the reputation for prettiness, but Linux has long beat the pants off both of them in flexibility, features, customizibility, power, and stability. It is doing quite well for prettiness too.

Point #7 is interesting, I agree with it. Chasing Windows is futile because that is going in reverse. Linux is already the champion of desktop environments; the remaining hurdle is applications and quality of applications. We're close, but not all the way there.

But the real message here is #10. IBM is not interested in standalone computer desktops, but selling software as a service. Or cloud, or hosted services, or whatever you want to call it, it's all the same thing: keeping control of customer's software and data, and feeding them like little baby birds, only little baby birds who pay for the privilege. And that is what all the big vendors are chasing now. They're not interested in OEM desktop Linux and never will be. And just like Google and Amazon and other huge consumers of Linux, they'll have a built-in GPL dodge and share only whatever code they feel like sharing.


Hardware Support

The very least level of support IBM and other hardware vendors can offer is to not ship Win-hardware. They could build their machines with hardware components that are not operating-system specific, and support open driver development. I'm not holding my breath; I've been bugging various hardware vendors about this for years, and all they do is give me the same look my dog does when I use words he doesn't know.


Moral: No Corporate Saviors

So the moral is the same as always-- it is a mistake to wish for a savior. We have to do it ourselves. Which is the whole point of FOSS-- it isn't about "Oh please Mr. Sutor, rescue Linux and make it popular!" IBM will use Linux in a way that benefits IBM. Just like you and I use it in ways that benefit us. The great power of distributed development and low barriers to entry is we can find other people whose interests align with ours, and join forces. That's how we keep Linux cool, useful, progressive, and not locked up in corporate ghettoes.

The big unanswered, and unasked, question: Linux and FOSS are hot and trendy now. Every PHB wants to do Linux. But what's in it for all the people who are actually writing the code, only to see all these big businesses profit from it? Stay tuned, as I am going to try to find out.

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