Microsofts Windows operating system is practically synonymous with the term "personal computer." Last year, according to International Data Corp. (IDC), Microsoft owned 92 percent of the desktop OS market. Although industry analysts and technical types agree that this situation could change, they dont necessarily agree on how.

Some note that at least a modicum of competition now exists at the desktop OS level. Others wonder if the desktop OS might not disappear entirely, or -- depending on the underlying code -- be folded into UNIX software running back-end servers.

Rapidly Maturing Alternatives

At the December 2000 eBusiness Conference and Expo, Louis Gerstner, IBM CEO, said the company planned to pour $1 billion into Linux-related development in 2001. The company has roughly 1,500 developers working on Linux and is putting Linux on laptops, PCs and mainframes.

The companys public pledge to the cult-hero OS most likely wont speed Linuxs slow creep into the desktop OS market, but when a blue-chip corporation like IBM embraces Linux, people notice.

"If you ask the question, Is it possible for another OS to become a high-volume alternative to Windows? the answer is, Yes," said Daniel Frye, director of IBMs Linux Technology Center. "Is it likely? Not in the next couple of years. Linux clearly is not there yet, although its rapidly maturing."

Part of that maturation is the increasing quality of user interfaces that take some of the mystery out of using the OS and the growth in the number of available applications, he added, noting that only certain types of enterprises are likely to embrace the OS today.

"The corporations with highly technical staffs, largely engineering staffs, are at least considering Linux because they have the staff thats technical enough to be comfortable with it," he said. "What you might see on the government side is national labs, the Department of Defense or the Department of Energy start doing some trial work. They would mimic the highly technical corporate customers."

IDCs research found that Macintosh holds a 4 percent share of the desktop OS market, Linux holds slightly less than two percent of the market and all others combined hold approximately two percent, said Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of IDCs Systems Software division.

Although Linux has a very small percent of the desktop OS market, its still one of the fastest growing desktop operating systems, he added.

"Its quite possible that Linux will grow to the number two position behind Windows by 2004, based upon Mac OS current trajectory and Linuxs current growth," he said.

Microsoft is certainly aware of its competition, but the company is confident of its position.

"Linux on the desktop is certainly competition," said Tom Laemmel, Windows product manager for Microsoft. "Theres lots of competition and lots of potential competition out there."

Power of Perception

Perhaps the largest barrier to any open-source OS establishing itself in the desktop market is what people think about such software.

One image problem with a non-proprietary OS is how that OS would be certified, said IBMs Frye, noting that the C2 certification or the B1 certification are certifications not only of the code, but also of the development process. Although the process of developing a non-proprietary OS may be rigorous, Frye said hes not sure how the certification process would be applied.

Another image problem is that consumers remain leery of non-proprietary operating systems simply because they arent made by known companies.

"In some cases, theres a lack of understanding of how disciplined the open-source development process really is," said Frye. "Some people believe its chaotic and random, and its not. Its very disciplined. The peer-review process is a fairly excruciating process."

"The mindset is that this is toy software because