Victories on both sides in this battle
By Simon Moores
Published: Wednesday 23 November 2005
The struggle between Windows and the open source movement calls for epic metaphors, says Simon Moores, but the battle will be fought in the middle ground and can we really expect Linux to defeat the Empire there?
Some time has passed since I last revisited the titanic struggle between the "Open Force" (or is that open source) and the Empire, loosely known as Microsoft.
Since then we've had a new Star Wars movie and a total cost of ownership argument from Gartner has proved compelling enough for Lord Vader to decide that when it comes to provisioning something as large as a Death Star, Windows offers a pretty decisive advantage.
In fact, the Star Wars saga offers a better metaphor for the struggle between Windows and the open source - principally Linux - movement than you might think, as this is a story which pits two conflicting ideologies against each other and which looks set to run for multiple episodes and see victories for both sides, for many years to come.
"Microsoft," reports Gartner, "will remain the dominant server operating-system provider for midsize businesses through 2010. For midsize businesses Linux presents many challenges, including not fully understanding the OS' benefits, resource constraints and the perceived high switching costs to move from Windows."
In principle at least, neither side looks set to lose in the arms race between the two camps. Microsoft's grip on the server market remains too powerful to lead to anything more than guerrilla victories for Linux. But Linux will in turn offer a growing number of advantages, making such wins larger, more significant and more frequent as time passes.
Strategically, Microsoft, after years of attempting to ignore the threat from the open source community, is now looking for the arguments that reinforce both its own paradigm model and customer loyalties that exist in the enterprise market. While, from time to time, it conveniently shoots itself in both feet with its aggressive software licensing policies.
This strikes me as bizarre because, given its market share advantage, Microsoft has some control, through its pricing, of Linux market-share growth going forward.
After all, in a rabidly costs-conscious enterprise IT environment, a clear cost of ownership advantage one way or the other is compelling - which is why Microsoft is finding it hard to stack the argument against Linux, particularly at the mid-level enterprise level, where it feels it is at its most vulnerable to penguin creep.
Security remains an inflection point in the struggle between open source and Windows. Looking back at columns I've written on the subject, one can see that Microsoft has managed to turn what was a shambles into relatively solid argument in favour of using Windows over Linux.
While at this point, I can almost hear my inbox filling with outraged emails from the open source community, I think we need to accept, that while Windows is subject to a constant catalogue of exploits, Microsoft's method of delivering security updates, does, in my experience, inspire a level of confidence among businesses that has yet to exist in the open source world.
I'm not saying that the Windows platform itself is more intrinsically secure but that in a world increasingly swamped by cyber crime, business and consumers are possibly more confident in a single source of leadership than an open one.
It's important to note that since I first started writing about the growth of open source in around 1999, both Linux and Windows have both been growing at the expense of Novell, Sun Solaris and Unix but from now on, as Gartner warns, Microsoft, is facing a highly flexible and mature operating system, which "Through 2010, [is] likely to become increasingly prominent among large enterprises".
As this occurs, Gartner adds, the Linux-focused market and after-market skills base will increase in support of large enterprises, feeding the skills and technology pool to the benefit of midsize businesses as well. As this "mature ecosystem increases", it concludes, "the risk of market share loss for Microsoft increases" and "businesses will have a more substantial alternative to Windows than they have had".
I have to agree with Gartner, it's the middle ground where Microsoft looks set to be most vulnerable over the next five years because it's here that Linux offers the kind of evolutionary flexibility which doesn't quite exist in larger enterprises, wrapped in a tight knot of compliance, security and TCO issues.
In a stark warning to the software giant, Gartner writes: "It is Microsoft's business to lose, and it must execute diligently against its midsize-business strategy to secure its position," which rather reminds me of the problem faced by another global superpower today: that of winning mindshare and a series of small wars than the much larger battles it's more suited for.
Simon Moores is managing director of Zentelligence Research and vice chairman of policy development for the Conservative Technology Forum.
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