Tiemann Takes the Stand

by Richard Vernon

Red Hat CTO Michael Tiemann's testimony in the continuing federal court hearings, regarding sanctions against Microsoft for breaking antitrust laws, has been receiving a lot of coverage the last couple of days.

In his testimony, Tiemann discusses how the fear of retaliation by Microsoft has prevented hardware manufacturers from bundling Linux with their computers. His discussion focuses on Red Hat's canceled bundling deal with Dell, but the Washington Post discusses the fact that he found the same element of fear at Compaq and IBM. The Extreme Tech story mentions similar results at Intel.

We tend to think of these companies as giants in their own right, which really brings home the bullying power of Microsoft--especially when one considers the commitment to Linux that all of these hardware manufacturers share. IBM's commitment to Linux is impossible to miss. Besides making Linux-compatible hardware, Compaq always has a booth at the major Linux tradeshows and makes available a syndicated Linux newsletter to their customers. Intel recently released the Intel C++ and Fortran Compilers for Linux to provide application developers with highly optimized compilers for the Intel IA-32 and Itanium processor families. Intel also uses Linux servers in-house that run VMware GSX server software along with Red Hat 7.1 and 7.2 in order to consolidate the number of physical servers needed for new IT projects. And they have saved tens of thousands of dollars doing it. In essence, these companies are big Linux fans or at least have some portion devoted to Linux fandom.

Microsoft is able to yield such power over these hardware giants in the desktop market largely because this market for MS products is so immense, and these hardware companies need to access those markets, too. It's no secret that as much as people love to hate Microsoft, the vast majority still use their products--principally the MS Office suite of applications. My impression is that the average home computer user still praises Microsoft for making the power of the modern PC accessible to them.

One of the sanctions sought by state prosecutors would require that Microsoft sell a license to Linux resellers to offer MS Office products, with the idea that this would make Linux competitive on the desktop. Microsoft is of course resisting this, and frankly I don't see that it's needed. Judging from the demo I saw earlier this year at LinuxWorld in New York, the HancomOffice suite (which claims complete compatibility with MS Office products) is every bit as good as what Microsoft offers on most levels, and at $29.95 for the standard edition and $49.95 for the Professional version, it comes in at hundreds less than the comparable MS Office XP.

This seems to be one more penetration into the Microsoft armor. Another penetration, perhaps equally significant, is the market for PCs with no operating system included. I don't know exactly what's driving this market (or how big it is), but I imagine the idea of just adding free Linux has something to do with it. Doc Searls, in the UpFront section of the upcoming May issue of Linux Journal, reports on Wal-Mart's selling of complete PCs (Intel inside, no less) minus monitor and OS for $399. I hope to see more vendors follow this lead. With the exposure Wal-Mart has, maybe budget-conscious consumers will take a second look at Linux.

Eric Raymond has been prophesying the demise of Microsoft (somewhat prematurely) for years now based on the idea that hardware prices will eventually fall too low to absorb the cost of the OS license. I doubt that a corporation such as Microsoft, with such a stronghold in the software market, will disappear so easily. I wouldn't be surprised, however, if their power to push hardware vendors around were greatly reduced in the next few years.

Richard Vernon is Editor in Chief of Linux Journal.

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