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Bad Press in Good Press Clothing

During the Novell Linux Desktop press tour, I frequently used an analogy to surfing for Linux on the desktop. What I would say is essentially that desktop Linux is like a wave heading for the shore: Microsoft really cannot stop it from happening, and it presents a very real threat to their desktop dominance. But a company like Novell has to be realistic about what open source on the desktop really is, and that it is not Novell. Instead, Novell is one of the companies surfing that wave and hoping to ride the wave all the way in to shore.

Let me risk belaboring the simile. Other companies have already wiped out or bailed, having caught the wave too early. Other companies may catch the open source wave too late. Microsoft surely sees that wave, and that’s why Ballmer is recently so vocal about Linux, and Microsoft is so strong on their anti-Linux FUD campaign.

Linux on the desktop has challenges still to overcome. The technology–the platform, the desktop environment, and several of the standard must-have applications–is certainly mature enough, but there are yet areas to conquer. The OpenOffice.org office suite is still not clean enough to satisfy a lot of avid MS Office users. And the ISV’s are not all on board with software (on the personal side think Quicken, iTunes, Audible.com, etc.; on the business side, it’s line-of-business applications and vertical applications). Yes, open source alternatives exist, and are growing in maturity, but I am not an idealist who thinks that open source is always the best option. Business usually want someone to back their mission-critical systems.

It’s essential for the companies surfing the open source wave to stay legitimate when talking about the software they are offering. That is especially true when dealing with a high-interest topic like desktop Linux. Everyone seems to want what Nat Friedman calls “the David and Goliath story.” The high interest becomes a breeding ground for sensationalism.

Consequently, in most of the press tour for Novell Linux Desktop, I made very clear that Novell Linux Desktop 9 is not the product that will break Micrsoft’s back, and that Linux and Windows will need to cohabitate in the enterprise environment for many years to come. That’s just common sense: Windows is entrenched, Linux is up-and-coming, and Microsoft is a very agile 1,200 pound gorilla (Yes, that’s 1.5 800lb gorillas, or three 400 pound gorillas.) Microsoft has deftly changed strategies when market conditions changed in the past.

All that said, naturally, I was disappointed to see an online article by Liam Lahey trying to make a David & Goliath story of our announcement:

Novell said it doesn’t rule out the general replacement of Microsoft Windows and other proprietary operating systems with its Linux Desktop. Most users do, but that hasn’t squelched Novell’s enthusiasm.

That is a disappointing interpretation of our announcement. Especially, since Mr. Lahey had spoken to several Novell personnel. Had someone at Novell given him the wrong idea? I sent out a note to the others he interviewed, expressing my concern about the angle of Mr. Lahey’s coverage. Ladd Timpson, Novell Worldwide Director for Channel Marketing, responded:

Indeed. It’s not the message that was emphasized by any means. He said what he wanted to say.

This shows the climate of the industry right now. We have a large vendor, Microsoft–who has so dominated the desktop and office software market, and used such aggressive tactics as to garner anti-trust lawsuits in several countries–and an emerging rival technology, Linux. People are so eager to see the story unfold a specific way that they sometimes jump to firebrand conclusions about what is really going on.

Most of the coverage from the press release and tour has been spot-on, and it’s been a very rewarding week. So, while I was disappointed with Mr. Lahey’s coverage, his approach to the article does show that even when you take what should be a very even-handed and straightforward approach to talking about Linux (or any other high-interest open source product), you should expect some media exaggeration will still happen.


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