IBM Software's Mills: Time Has Come For Linux On The Desktop

Such moves have included the release to the open-source community of Cloudscape database code acquired when IBM bought Informix, and the release disclosed this week of IBM's Unstructured Information Management Architecture. It's supporting the ongoing development of the Eclipse project and earlier this year acquired Gluecode Software, a company that sells support and services built around the Apache Geronimo application server.

As IBM's open-source efforts begin to bear fruit, don't be surprised if this momentum pushes out to the desktop, says Steven Mills, IBM Software Group's senior VP and group executive. That would mark a sharp change in the marketplace, since Linux adoption on PCs has been a nonfactor, in part because of the lack of third-party applications.

One year after IBM donated the code, Cloudscape has emerged through the Apache Software Foundation as a Java-based open-source relational database engine called Derby. Novell earlier this year began shipping Derby with its basic SuSE Linux 9.3 operating system, although the company hasn't revealed any plans to include Derby with its Open Enterprise Server or SuSE Linux Enterprise Server offerings. Derby's adoption means good things for Java, and subsequently for IBM. "We're one of the biggest beneficiaries of Java in the industry," Mills says. "If there is widespread use of this technology, it means people are building things compliant with the architectures we prefer."

Another technology IBM prefers is its open-source Unstructured Information Management Architecture, or UIMA, architecture. Earlier this week at the LinuxWorld conference, IBM revealed the first commercially available software for processing content based on UIMA. The software, called WebSphere Information Integrator OmniFind Edition, is designed to provide enterprise search middleware for powering intranets, extranets, and corporate public Web sites.

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The Gluecode acquisition earlier this year offers IBM two business models. IBM has positioned Gluecode as a means for encouraging developers to embrace Apache's Geronimo J2EE framework and eventually get them to graduate to its more expensive WebSphere lineup of products. But Mills acknowledges WebSphere isn't for everyone, and for those companies IBM sees its ability to sell services around Geronimo as a market unto itself. "There's a business model around doing packaging and support" for open source, he says.

Eclipse has done well for IBM as an integrated development environment that the open-source community can use to write applications that can be deployed across multiple operating systems. The company says it has since 2001 donated more than $40 million worth of software programming tools to the effort. "We've put our stake in the ground on operating-system and hardware independence," Mills says. "This is about how you encourage the market on the issues you consider to be important."

IBM's campaign to promote the proliferation of Java and the company's seeding of code in the open-source community are long-term investments, but Mills and company are convinced their strategy will pay off in the larger battle against Microsoft and its efforts to sell the market on all things Windows. That's shaping up as a viable battle of the titans.

The desktop looks rather more a mismatch. Yet Mills contends open-source Linux will soon play a greater role on PCs. Just as Linux's standing within companies has risen from being relegated mostly to running Web proxy connections and file/print functions to in some cases becoming a primary operating system for mission-critical applications, Linux can make progress on the desktop, Mills maintains.

It's a dynamic that's been promised for years by companies that offer applications running in desktop Linux environments, but IT managers haven't been the least convinced and are, despite a sometimes love/hate relationship with Windows, are loath to give it up.

But Mills and other desktop Linux advocates say Linux's time has come for people who use their PCs to perform very specific functions: call-center workers, for example, who use the same apps over and over. "There are tens of millions of these jobs around the world where there's no unique dependency on Windows," Mills says.

Mills isn't alone in seeing a niche role for desktop Linux. "Linux on the desktop is happening, but mostly in transactional spaces," such as in retail environments where companies use the operating system to run point-of-sale devices, says Miguel de Icaza, leader of the open-source Mono project launched in 2001 to let Unix developers build and deploy Microsoft .Net-based applications on different platforms, including Linux. Desktop Linux is lacking primarily in the area of third-party applications that companies use to perform functions specific to their business, as opposed to core desktop applications used to create documents, do instant-messaging, or run E-mail. "As soon as you have to do something more specialized, Linux is at a disadvantage," he says.

Not one to sit idle as a tech trend unfolds, IBM on Tuesday introduced Linux support for its Workplace offerings as part of a planned $100 million investment in Workplace software for the Linux platform. With Lotus Domino Web Access on Firefox 1.0.X, which should be available by the end of the third quarter, IBM's browser-based Web-messaging client will support the open-source Mozilla browser, allowing users to access E-mail, calendaring, and scheduling, as well as replication and other Lotus applications using an Internet connection. During the third quarter, IBM and Ericom Software also will deliver a Workplace Managed Client plug-in that provides users with a single sign-on for multiple applications running on Windows Terminal Servers, Linux, and legacy systems. IBM also revealed a Lotus Notes plug-in targeted for the first half of next year that lets Linux desktop users run Notes and Domino within IBM's Workplace Managed Client environment.

Workplace is an ideal product to offer companies with users better served by desktop Linux rather than a generic thin-client desktop. "Workplace takes the functionality of WebSphere and moves it down to the client," Mills says, pointing out that Workplace runs either on Windows or Linux.

"An increasing number of businesses have become anxious about their costs in desktop environments," Mills says, adding that virus patch management is having a significant increase on cost. Mills also cites IDC data showing that, as of the end of 2004, there were 10 million desktops running Linux, a figure that includes desktops running Linux and another operating system on the same PC. The data also indicates that there's a greater than 30% annual growth rate in Linux as a desktop operating system, Mills adds.

In an effort to boost third-party ISV support for desktop Linux, CodeWeavers Inc. on Tuesday introduced its latest software designed to make it easier to run Windows applications natively on Linux. The company plans to increase the number of Windows-centric office productivity, gaming, and utility applications that can run on Linux desktops using its CrossOver Office software. CrossOver Office 5.0, to be released in September, will include Linux support for Microsoft Office 2003 as well as improvements to the product's Microsoft Installer and component-object model features. CrossOver Office 6.0, expected to debut by the end of the year, will add support for Windows versions of many popular games.