In a phone interview Friday, Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) CEO Stu Cohen said, "As Linux continues to grow, Microsoft will port some of their applications to run on Linux." There has been speculation about this for years, and this is still speculation, but Cohen is head of an organization that says it is "increasingly being recognized as the center-of-gravity for the Linux industry," and is rapidly proving himself at least as effective a Linux marketer as the freckle-faced boy in IBM's Linux ads, so his speculations carry more weight than most.When Cohen took over as OSDL's CEO last April, the group was known primarily for its work on Carrier Grade Linux and other projects of interest only to a narrow range of enterprise-level tech types. Under Cohen, OSDL has become the world's leading Linux advocacy group. It has expanded its range of lab projects, which is nice, but Cohen's biggest coup in a marketing sense was probably hiring Linus Torvalds (who is technically on leave from his old employer, OSDL member Transmeta, and is an "OSDL Fellow" who works from home, not a 9-to-5 employee).
OSDL's growing influence
The group had 24 corporate members when Cohen started. It now has 40, and he anticipates "close to 100 by the end of the year."
A big thrust is expansion outside of the U.S., especially in Asia. OSDL recently announced its first Chinese member. Cohen says this deal came about after he "was asked to visit China by the government of China and some of our members. I met with a number of government agencies. I found much interest in the acceleration of Linux in China."
Cohen notes, "A number of [OSDL] member companies are already active in China." He specifically mentions HP, Intel, Miracle, TurboLinux, IBM, and Computer Associates (CA), but they certainly aren't the only ones hungrily eyeing a country with a population close to 1.2 billion, most of whom do not yet own computers -- and, unlike people in North America and Europe, haven't been exposed to many years and many billions of dollars worth of Microsoft advertising.
In China, the U.S., and everywhere else, Cohen stresses, "[OSDL is] the one place where vendors, users, and the developer community come together and work on inhibitors to broad deployment of Linux."
Removing 'inhibitors' to Linux deployment
This is part of Cohen's "stump speech," and we've heard it before, but it bears repeating, or at least paraphrasing:
Linux is already suitable for many corporate desktops. Cohen says, "If you're a company with 100 people working in reception, the shipping department, the receiving department, and on call desks, they could move to Linux today." He believes these job functions account for about one third of all corporate desktop computer use.
The second third of corporate Linux adopters, Cohen believes, mostly need "database, word processing, email, and Web access." He characterizes these workers are, for the most part, "not hard-core personal productivity users," and says their mass adoption of Linux is probably "a year or two away."
- The final third is filled with workers Cohen characterizes as "mobile professionals." He sees them using laptops, BlackBerries, PDAs, and other add-on devices, with the need for all their various devices to communicate with each other flawlessly, plus the ability to "make sophisticated PowerPoint presentations" and manipulate complex spreadsheets. He believe these people will be the "last to move" because Linux doesn't yet meet all their needs.
I couldn't help pointing out to Cohen that I -- the (Linux-using) author of this article -- am a member of the "mobile professionals" class he talks about as the last likely Linux adopters. During the course of this byplay, Cohen mentioned that he uses SUSE on his desktop but has not yet switched to Linux on his laptop. I offered to set up his laptop for "mobile professional" use in Linux if he had no one in-house who could do it for him. I would hate to see the head of the Open Source Development Lab unable to work because his computer was laid low by a virus while traveling. That would be embarrassing for Linux users everywhere.
Meanwhile, OSDL keeps growing in both numbers and influence. Having Linus Torvalds and Andrew Morton on board helps, Cohen says, "but it's not the single reason [companies] join."
He says most companies decide to become members, "because they want to talk to vendors, talk to developers, talk to users... the whole community."
To OSDL, "the community" is still primarily business and institutional users. Cohen says OSDL gets "a lot of interest from government agencies, universities, companies, and small businesses.
"Home users? We're interested, but our focus is primarily on business use, whether small, medium, or large."
Cohen says there has been discussion within OSDL about some sort of "entry-level" membership for individual Linux users, but there are no current plans to allow individuals to join -- and have a voice in the way OSDL is run and the areas where its research activities are concentrated. For the moment, Cohen believes, the needs of small businesses and individual users are similar enough that an increased small business presence will represent the needs of end users in OSDL's deliberations.
So when will Microsoft join OSDL?
Sooner or later Linux will become enough of a factor in the desktop computing world that Microsoft will be forced to view it as a market, not a threat.
"They're a smart company," says Cohen. "They're a market-driven company. They listen to their customers. When the market share's right, I believe they will make products that run on Linux."
Slashdot author Michael Sims says the idea of Microsoft selling Linux products "seems obvious to me, for the same reasons they have Office for the Mac."
Back in 1997, Microsoft invested $150 million in Apple, so there is a precedent for the company helping operating system competitors, even if its primary motive for doing so is to make sure there are other operating system choices it can point to whenever it runs afoul of antitrust laws.
Will Microsoft join OSDL? That might be a bit of a stretch. Still, you never know. Microsoft distributes software under the LGPL (.doc format page), after all, so it might be eligible for membership, and having Microsoft directly support Linux development would certainly be a delicious bit of irony.