Can Microsoft Erase Handwriting On Wall?

For some years now we’ve been hearing about the inevitable, even imminent, fall of Microsoft, the software giant that everyone loves to hate. From the Internet to Java to the U.S. Department of Justice, there was always some brave white knight on the horizon ready to cut the Redmond colossus down to size.

Through all these recent challenges, of course, Microsoft has remained the world’s dominant software company, thanks both to its ability to adapt (in the case of the Internet) and to its hardball business and legal tactics (Java and DOJ).

If there has been a common thread running through Microsoft’s recent gauntlet of tribulations, it has been the company’s fierce determination to defend its stranglehold on the desktop, which it effectively leverages to gain ground in server and other enterprise software markets.

Now, though, even Microsoft appears unsure it can handle what could be the biggest threat yet to its desktop dominance – open source. In comments Wednesday, Microsoft CFO John Connors said the company’s future growth might be threatened if Linux technology spread to computer operating systems.

Connors’ fears may be justified. An operating system that costs nothing and is easy to work with is hard to ignore any time. In the midst of an economic downturn that has ravaged IT budgets and forced network managers to scramble for solutions, open-source coding for many is nothing less than a savior.

What makes this battle especially difficult for Microsoft is that it can’t rely on one of its time-honored techniques the FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) campaign designed to scare customers away from an untested technology. Too many shops are using open source now. They understand how to work with it and what it can do. They’ve inhaled, and they know open source isn’t going to give them Reefer Madness.

Indeed, a recent poll of CIOs conducted by Deutsche Bank and CIO Magazine shows that more 43 percent of respondents expect Linux and Unix combined to dominate the enterprise, with 38 percent betting on Microsoft.

While Linux alone got only 21 percent of the votes (with Unix getting 22 percent), there are bottom-line reasons driving the Linux trend. As Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik noted during a keynote speech at this week’s Enterprise Linux Forum in Boston, companies can save significantly on maintenance costs by migrating to Linux from Unix machines.

As open source continues to deepen its inroads into the networks, it only makes sense that it begins infiltrating the desktop. Already companies such as Red Hat are offering Linux-based software for email, Web browsing and other desktop applications. And Jon Hall, executive director of Linux International, pointed out to another keynote audience at the Boston event that there are more than 3,500 commercial applications for Linux, including office and accounting tools.

There’s a sense of inevitability to the open-source movement, and it’s unclear what Microsoft can do to derail it. While Redmond won’t go down without a fight, you can’t help but get the sense that the real white knight is in the house.

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