Linux nerves

Linux is making lots of vendors nervous these days. Some, like the folks at IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co., are throwing money at Linux - they hope to get in on the ground floor of the Next Big Thing. Others, like Microsoft Corp., are throwing whatever sticks and stones they can find - they hope the buzz fades and the Linux bandwagon crashes and burns.

Yep, these vendors are nervous. And for corporate IT people, that nervousness is an advantage - no matter what we happen to think of Linux. Is this a great system, or what?

Nervousness is why a Microsoft executive was at the LinuxWorld show in New York last week, bending the ears of reporters with predictions of a Linux crash and burn. But then, Doug Miller's title is group product manager for competitive strategies. If he wasn't trashing the competition, he wouldn't be earning his paycheck.

Miller predicts flat growth, evaporating interest and a steep drop in Linux companies' stock prices this year. (Any comparisons to Microsoft's performance last year are left as an exercise for the reader.) Nobody much believed Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer when he told analysts last month that beating Linux "really is Job 1 for us." But when Microsoft sends a guy out to trash-talk the star of the show at a conference, you know somebody's worried.

Which means we've got leverage when it's time to talk dollars and units with Microsoft. If they really don't want us to try Linux, let 'em come up with a sweeter deal.

Nervousness had IBM, HP, Compaq Computer Corp. and other Linux investors pacing the LinuxWorld aisles, too. These guys need a return on their investment; IBM alone is spending a cool billion on Linux this year. That's not a side bet, even for Big Blue.

If the Linux play doesn't pay off, things could get ugly. So the Linux backers are talking up Linux with as much energy as Microsoft is talking it down.

And that gives us bargaining power, too. If IBM wants to sell us Linux, we've got a choice. What's so special about IBM's Linux instead of, say, Compaq's or HP's - or anyone else's Linux, for that matter? They all know they've got competition; if their Linux is so great, they can prove it by cutting us a great deal.

Does that sound callous and cynical? Sure it does. Hard bargaining is like that. Unless you're a true believer - in Linux or Windows 2000 or mainframes or some other best-of-all-possible-worlds technology - you're not buying IT products because you love them, but because they're the best for doing what you and your users need to accomplish.

And the fact that you can walk away from any vendor's table is your strongest bargaining chip in cutting the best deal.

Competition - real competition - gives us enough product choice so we can walk away from that table. Right now, Linux is generating a lot of competition. For IT shops, that's all good.

And the best part about it is, we don't even have to like Linux. We don't have to approve of its weird, loose-knit, nobody-in-charge, everybody-does-it-for-free development approach. We don't have to buy into its pseudo-utopian free-software philosophy.

We don't even have to trust it to survive on its own. IBM, HP and the rest are investing billions of dollars in Linux; they'll pick up the ball if the free-software guys drop it.

So we can treat Linux like any other product. We can use it to pit vendors against one another. We can demand the best terms. We can close the best deal.

And yeah, that makes IT sellers nervous. But it should make IT buyers feel just fine.

Hayes, Computerworld's senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

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