IBM aims to lower cost of using Linux, Apple PCs

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - IBM IBM.N said on Sunday it will offer an open desktop software system for businesses that puts the cost of managing Apple or Linux computers on a more equal footing with Microsoft's Windows software, improving the economics of Windows alternatives.

The product -- which the company calls its "Open Client Offering" -- pulls together software IBM has developed in-house and with partners Novell Inc. NOVL.O and Red Hat Inc. RHAT.O to answer questions over the cost-effectiveness of managing Linux or Apple desktop PCs alongside Windows PCs.

International Business Machines Corp. said the new software makes it feasible for big businesses to offer their employees a choice of running Windows, Linux or Apple Macintosh software on desktop PCs, using the same underlying software code. This cuts the costs of managing Linux or Apple relative to Windows.

IBM's Open Client software chips away at long-time rival Microsoft's MSFT.O Windows franchise by making it unnecessary for companies to pay Microsoft for licenses for operations that no longer rely on Windows-based software. The move comes as corporate decision-makers have begun to mull when it makes sense to upgrade to Microsoft's Windows Vista.

“We worked with the open source community and found a way to write software once that will work regardless of operating system. It will run on Windows, Macintosh or Linux,” said Scott Handy, IBM’s vice president of Linux and open source.

As an alternative to Microsoft, IBM will offer its own Open Document Format (ODF) software for tasks like word processing, spreadsheets or presentations, along with Lotus collaboration, instant messaging and blog tools, and the Firefox Web browser, which is the biggest rival to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

IBM believes that using its software can cut the cost of managing applications, maintenance and customer support costs on company networks that need to run not just Windows but other software, Handy said. Technology market researchers Gartner and IDC estimate that it costs $4,000 to $6,000 to manage the average desktop PC of any office worker, he noted.

“In big organizations, a large, double-digit percentage of users don’t require Windows Office suite licenses, meaning they can save a lot of money,” Handy said, pointing to roles like customer call center operators or Web software programmers.

IBM plans to use its “Open Client” software initially to run some 5 percent of desktop computers across its own organization, which employs around 320,000 staff worldwide.

Customer call centers and software development groups in Brazil, India, Europe and other IBM offices will take part. Pockets of Apple Inc. AAPL.O computer users within IBM also will be supported for the first time by Open Client.

“Now it is a level playing-field where Linux is a very viable option and can get the same kind of maintenance and support as Windows,” Handy said.

Europe's second-largest automaker, PSA Peugeot Citroen PEUP.PA, last month said it had agreed to a multiyear deal with Linux software provider Novell to run Linux on 20,000 desktop PCs plus 2,500 server computers. Underpinning this deal is IBM's Open Client Offering software, Handy said.

A piece of IBM software called Expeditor enables an organization to manage different systems as if they were on a unified underlying system, IBM said. Apple software support will be ready later this year.

One Linux analyst said that the use of Linux to run desktop computers as an alternative to Microsoft Windows has occurred at a “glacial pace,” in spite of frequent predictions by pundits in recent years such a transition is inevitable.

“There is a growing appetite not so much to displace Windows wholesale as to offer alternatives,” said Stephen O’Grady, an analyst with research firm RedMonk. “No one is going to dramatically unseat Microsoft’s desktop dominance.”