Come On, IBM, Pull Your Socks Up


If you wanted to pin down the day on which GNU/Linux became a respectable option for business, you'd be hard put to find a better candidate than 10 January, 2000. For it was on that date that IBM announced it intended:

to make all of its server platforms Linux-friendly, including S/390, AS/400, RS/6000 and Netfinity servers, and the work is already well underway.

At a stroke, open source was no longer some far-out hippie stuff, but a serious, viable, enterprise option.

IBM clearly played a key role in kick-starting today's continuing spread of free software in the enterprise, but how well has it followed through on that early promise? Here's one analysis, from an interesting paper that reviews in some detail IBM's progress in implementing GNU/Linux across its line (although, for reasons that escape me, it claims that IBM announced this move in 1999):

IBM has delivered on their pledge to reorient the company towards Linux. All of their systems, software, and service brands are Linux-enabled – and fully backed up by significant IBM resources. When Linux first emerged, traditional system vendors had four broad choices: fight to protect their proprietary products; pigeonhole it in a niche; ignore it and hope for the best; or embrace the trend. Sun, for example, tried all four strategies at various times, losing market share all the way. Dell mostly ignored it until recently, and HP, despite being very active in developing cross-platform Linux in the early days, now seems to have backed off quite a bit and has mostly pigeonholed Linux into their x86 product line. IBM’s choice was to fully embrace Linux – despite the perceived risk to their legacy lines of business. As a result, they now have a very wide and deep set of Linux products and services, enjoy support from the Linux community, and are well-positioned to continue to prosper.

But here's the curious thing. Despite this deep-seated commitment to open source, IBM is remarkably invisible in that world today. I rarely come across any initiatives from the company, or even much commentary outside a few bloggers, albeit interesting and informed ones. And yet you'd expect its early trailblazing would have left it well-placed to be in the vanguard of the continuing move towards openness.

So what's going on? Is it a change of strategy? That seems unlikely, since it would mean that IBM is turning its back on a success it played a major part in fostering. Is it just a change of style, to one that's more shy and retiring? Perhaps, although that seems inappropriate for the Big Blue Behemoth. Or is it just bad at communicating what it is up to recently?

Whatever the reason, it seems to me that IBM is punching well below its weight in the open source stakes, and seriously squandering the kudos it has earned. At a time when everyone else – even Microsoft - is falling over themselves to be hip and open, IBM is noticeable by its absence. And it's not only IBM that is suffering: open source too would benefit hugely from a more active role of the company, since its influence in the corporate sector remains huge.

So, for the sake of your shareholders and of the stakeholders in the open source ecosystem, I say: come on, IBM, pull your socks up and get stuck in again. Please go back to leading in this field, as you did a decade ago, rather than lagging as you seem to be today.