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Tuesday, August 15, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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IBM widens open-source strategy far beyond Linux

Seattle Times technology reporter

IBM is increasing its bet on open-source software in a move that could put more pressure on Microsoft to follow suit.

The Armonk, N.Y., company planned to unveil a strategy today for nurturing open-source software applications in addition to the better-known Linux operating system it has long supported.

"This strategy for open source beyond Linux will be a bigger disruptive force in the next three years than Linux was in the last 15," Scott Handy, IBM's vice president of worldwide Linux and open source, said in a phone interview ahead of the announcement.

Merv Adrian, a Forrester Research analyst who was briefed on IBM's plans, said the company's steadily increasing support for open source is a major force changing the future of software.

"This represents the beginning of some fundamental macroeconomic shifts of how the software industry is constructed," Adrian said.

Linus Torvalds, then a student at Finland's University of Helsinki, started developing Linux 15 years ago. With contributions from developers around the world, his hobby grew into a freely available software operating system.

Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT in Hayward, Calif., said he worked on a report analyzing Linux in 1999, the same year IBM threw its weight behind the free-software model.

"At that time, it was very much an IT staffer's weekend plaything," said King, who was briefed by IBM on the beyond-Linux strategy.

Linux, and the open-source model by extension, has since proved itself as more than "a flash in the pan," he said.

The Linux market neared $7 billion in 2005, according to market researcher Gartner, and Linux holds about 12 percent of the server operating-system market, according to research firm IDC.

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IBM said it has more than 15,000 Linux-related customers.

"We know for sure that we can repeat this model," IBM's Handy said.

Microsoft's open-source efforts expanded in June with the launch of CodePlex, a Web site for sharing code and collaborating on open-source projects. It began work on open source with an initiative in 2001.

Adrian said Microsoft has more work to do to gain the credibility IBM has built in the open-source community.

"It's a little bit more of a stretch for some people, at least today, to accept the notion of Microsoft as a formidable open-source player," he said.

IBM has identified eight business opportunities it will focus on in its beyond-Linux strategy, including servers for Web applications; software-development tools; data servers; grid computing, which merges networked computers together to create a single, powerful computer; and systems management.

Adrian said IBM is "lowering the barriers to entry" for other companies — potential customers — that would like to use open-source software.

A recent Forrester survey of 1,000 major companies in the U.S. and Europe found that more than one-third already use open source, but another third are not yet interested. The support of a company like IBM could help convert those "nonbelievers," Adrian said.

In addition to its plans for the broader open-source world, IBM is bolstering its support for Linux by making its two best-selling products, Lotus Notes and Sametime communication and collaboration software, available on a Linux platform.

"IBM is helping to make a market that they'll play in," Adrian said. "... You can say all the wonderful, altruistic things you want [about open-source software]. This is smart business."

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

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