Imagine a Microsoft-Free Life

Has the time come at last to live a Microsoft-free life?

That thought crossed my mind yesterday morning as I read an announcement from IBM that (with Canonical Inc.) it was offering a new Linux-based virtual desktop suite that, at user prices as low as $59, would compete directly with the iconic Microsoft Office.

As part of the announcement, Big Blue also claimed that in a likely configuration -- a full Linux suite that included Lotus Notes e-mail, Sametime instant messaging, and some other collaboration tools -- the entire set-up would cost just $258 per user -- and that's not including the labor and maintenance savings that would come from shifting processing from the PC to the server in the network settings where this product is targeted to be sold. That's hundreds of dollars less than a comparable Vista/Office license.

On paper, that looks like a pretty sweet deal, and IBM knows it: "We are certainly cheaper than migrating to Office 2007 on Vista," said Inna Kuznetsova, director of Linux strategy at IBM. One can imagine the smirk on her face as she got the chance to bring up that much-maligned operating system.

In truth, it will probably not be that easy, or inexpensive, to jump from Microsoft to Big Blue as it hasn't been with past attempts by other companies to dethrone MS Office. Just ask Oracle or Sun Microsystems.

For one thing, for everyday folks, Linux is still a pain in the butt to use, its user interface still showing too much of its geek roots. There is also a natural resistance by many users to give up control over their own desktops -- that is, having it reside inside one's own personal computer -- to become the "thin client" of a distant server.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the natural human tendency to stick with what you know -- and what you've devoted years of attention to -- rather than to cast off and try something new even if it is clearly better and/or cheaper.

And when it comes to the average user, Microsoft Office is the desktop and has likely been so ever since they bought their first computer. As such, it is not a feature of their computers, it is their computers -- and getting them to consciously remove it presents an obstacle I'm not sure even mighty IBM can overcome.

It's interesting to look back on the early days of this industry -- I was around as reporter for the Windows, Word and Office introductions -- and realize how completely everybody, from industry executives to analysts to academics, missed this hidden X Factor in tech.

Twenty years ago, it was generally assumed that whatever company has the most innovative product in a given market won the game. A more nuanced view held that, while innovation won in the short term, marketing (including user support, tools, training, etc.) was the ultimate winner. There was also a vague understanding -- though a few people, like Bill Gates, understood it very well -- that the goal was to have your product become the "industry standard," a term that in those days mostly referred to accepted industry design rules (i.e. IEEE 488, etc.)

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