Breaking up with Windows is hard to do

Shuttering Windows and switching over -- you know you've thought about it! Doing business with Microsoft has gotten so complicated, more people are thinking about alternatives. But here's a question for you: what alternatives?

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Even though customer irritation appears to be at a record high, we are not likely to see a wide defection from Windows by those who have embraced the platform, since the resources required to make such a move are too great.

Customers have had plenty to grouse about lately, what with a deadline looming that forces them to sign onto an unpopular licensing program, confusion over the value of moving to Microsoft's .NET Server, unhappiness about losing support for NT 4.0 next year, and on and on. But what's a customer to do, really?

Experts say there's not much you can do. While customers may be more vocal about their discomfort, making a switch is too big a deal unless the business factors can somehow outweigh the massive disruption that is likely to result.

In a recent interview, Mark Minasi, author and long-time Microsoft observer, said on the server side, Linux is a great DNS server, a nice Web server, but these platforms are stand-alone items that are not integrated into a domain.

Are you mad about all the bugs in Microsoft's software? Minasi said Sun Microsystem Inc.'s iPlanet and other products are just as buggy.

Linux has made some headway. Going forward it is possible that Linux can find its way into corporations the same way that Windows got its foot in the door. Many freshly minted college graduates like Linux, and in fact, many prefer it to Windows.

Universities themselves are hotbeds of Linux usage. At Montana State University in Bozeman, core university systems run Linux, and more desktops are moving to Linux each day, said Martin Bourque, the Unix Systems Administrator at the Information Technology Center.

Bourque said the move to Linux is not so much driven by Microsoft's new licensing plan, though that plays a part. "I don't care which OS I use, but it has to be secure, reliable, from a company that doesn't nickel and dime me to death and can respond to reliability and security issues immediately."

"At the moment, Linux gives me much more hope for Utopia than Microsoft," Bourque said.

But for the average enterprise customer, just looking at the cost of transferring from one platform to another, where the end result may not be an improvement to what they're already doing, is enough to sink the idea of making a move. That's the word from Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of system software research at International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass.

This might change if the Windows price tag rises to where it could be weighed against making a change. But even a free piece of software that runs on commodity hardware could turn out to be the most expensive choice if new staff has to be hired to manage the platform, Kusnetzky said.

IT administrators have to consider the cost of compensation, floor space, operational support, etc. It doesn't take many hours of low productivity or problems for a business manager to justify staying with Microsoft. But all of this reflects how the game is played today, in a PC-centric world, where Microsoft owns the desktop operating system, the personal productivity suites, development tools and communication architecture.

"If the game changes, and the center of the world is a non-PC, intelligent appliance, with the applications running back in the network, then it's not all that clear that Microsoft's software will predominate," Kusnetzky said.

"They don't own the lion's share of embedded operating systems of Web-centric computing software. It's unclear that when you connect into the network, I'm not sure Microsoft has an advantage over Sun or IBM's AIX."

Of course there will always be plenty of customers who don't have the time and staff to muck around with Unix or Linux, and they believe that sticking with Microsoft is just easier.

Executives at the Krispy Kreme Doughnut Corp. had briefly considered using a Linux-based Web server but decided to be a test site for .NET and Internet Information Server version 6.0.

"We talked about Linux and open source, and I'm not opposed to it, but we felt like we could capitalize on our experience with Windows development environments," said Frank Hood, vice president of operations at Krispy Kreme in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"We want to sell doughnuts and for as much as we can. We don't want to be messing around with operating systems."

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Read more of Mark Minasi's Microsoft musings.

Check out what Windows pros like and dislike the most about Microsoft

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