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Microsoft Office for Linux? NOT!

Although folks had been surmising for a while that Microsoft may port the de facto standard office suite for most corporations to Linux, it wasn't until August of 2000 that definitive news was released that dispelled the rumors. Or did it? Microsoft quickly stepped in to have Paul Thurrott recant the article indicating that Microsoft engaged a French-owned coding firm, Mainsoft, to develop a set of libraries to allow execution of the Win32 API within a Linux environment. Mainsoft has access to the Windows NT and 2000 source code, which it uses for porting Microsoft products to UNIX platforms.

Whatever the truth is, it's sad in a way that Microsoft doesn't want to leverage their domination in the office applications market and make it available for Linux. Even sadder is that they shun Open Source ideals and attempt the effort in a vacuum; there are longstanding efforts to provide Windows functionality on Linux, either through APIs (the WINE project) or through native developed code (SAMBA). Both of these projects have achieved very good levels of success, especially given their complete lack of assistance from Microsoft. The entire episode sounds like early 20th century isolationism. In any event, it may prove to be a big mistake, because it gives competitors like Corel and Sun a chance to enter into the office applications arena.

Why Doesn't the Sun Shine on Linux?

It's interesting to observe how Sun Microsystems chooses to interact with Linux. Sun gave Linux a leg up this year by lending big-name support, distribution channels, and development resources to StarOffice—an office suite directly targeted at Microsoft Office—which runs under Linux x86, Solaris, and Windows. In a move very similar to what Netscape did with their browser software, Sun even released the source code for StarOffice under the GPL (GNU Public License), as well as under other licenses. So now we have a common office suite that runs on Solaris, Linux, MacOS, and Windows that is being developed by the Open Source community.

But when you look at Sun's overall Linux position, it's pretty easy to conclude that their involvement with StarOffice is for the future of Solaris. Fair enough, but not everyone in the industry is shutting out the possibility that folks will want to run other operating systems on their hardware (for example, IBM and AIX 5L). Let's look at Sun's stance on some Linux-related issues.

While they support a Linux execution environment, LXrun, inside of Solaris x86, Sun seems to be (officially) oblivious to the fact that Linux runs well on their SPARC and UltraSPARC hardware. This seems to imply that Sun Microsystems is either too proud of Solaris to admit that anything else (other than Windows NT) even exists, or that it costs them so little to develop and support Solaris that the idea of a "free" (*) alternative is too insignificant to bother with. (* "Free" both in the sense of the license, and "free beer.")

The announcement to abandon CDE (the Common Desktop Environment—the user interface provided with Solaris, HP-UX, and AIX) in favor of the Gnome Desktop Environment appears to be a step in the right direction. But maybe it's just in response to customers complaining about how antiquated (and lame) CDE is. Most folks I know who use a Sun workstation as a desktop have long since abandoned CDE and compiled their favorite "free" alternative.

Finally, Solaris is rapidly becoming the last major operating system that doesn't incorporate a journaled filesystem into the kernel as a standard product offering. To get enhanced capabilities such as mirroring, software RAID, and quick post-crash recovery, you have to purchase Soltice DiskSuite or go to an outside vendor, Veritas, for their Volume Manager and File System products. While for large hardware purchases these additional license costs are negligible, they're a substantial percentage of the cost of a Web server–sized system (15-25%), and they increase the total cost of operation (TCO) for a Solaris solution. Furthermore, because these products are add-ons, their installation requires time spent above and beyond their administration. If I can get the same functionality on the same hardware for less (that is, free) by running Linux, why go to the additional trouble and expense?

In case you're wondering, this is not an effort to tarnish Sun's good name, but it has to be expensive to develop and maintain an operating system that runs on a single platform. Technically, Solaris runs on both x86 and SPARC, but x86 market penetration is minor compared to both Linux and Solaris SPARC. It seems that Sun might embrace Linux as a relief from the burden of maintaining their proprietary software. Put another way, because Solaris SPARC comes free with the purchase of SPARC hardware, its development is somehow built into that price, making SPARC-based systems relatively more expensive than their x86-based competition. To compound the problem, the UltraSPARC-II platform is becoming a bit dated, and recent announcements indicate that the Ultra-IIIs won't be around as soon as was hoped, so Sun will be fighting an uphill battle to sell yesterday's technology at premium prices. Sun has been quite resourceful in the past; it will be interesting to see how they weather the next two years.

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