What set this up was a series of mistakes that Microsoft made over the last several years with regard to how Dell and the other OEMs were treated, coupled with the damage Vista ended up doing to Dells financial performance.
Microsofts tools are limited and if they now suddenly engage with Dell it will only confirm that what Dell plans to do with Linux had the intended result. Of course that might make Dell take a smaller position with Linux, but it wont stop the effort and if Linux can meet Dells revenue and profit need (which is risky) they are likely to expand this initial offering and others will quickly follow.
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What Microsoft must do is engage the OEMs and win back their hearts and minds, and that is going to take awhile. Fortunately folks dont like change and Microsoft is embedded with these firms in terms of hardware support, secondary alliances, and joint initiatives all of which wont go away very quickly. In addition people generally like the status quo and Microsoft is a known entity on the desktop.
Vista will be improving over this time and Linux breakage, largely due to incompatibilities and related software dependencies, will be hard to cover up. However, if Microsoft continues to fuel the need for a Windows alternative, eventually one will emerge. Recall that replacing IBM was nearly impossible according to sworn testimony and both Microsoft and HP have largely proven that a myth over the last decade.
Apples Run at the Desktop
Apple is slated to make their big run at the business desktop starting in March. Leopard, their new operating system, is supposed to be vastly more compatible with Windows shops and they have supposedly addressed the one major shortcoming locking them out of businesses (there are actually three).
In the last big Windows vs. Linux vs. MacOS trial, Linux lost by a lot but Apple lost only because the platform lacked Exchange support. That is expected to be native to Leopard and iWork, which does kind of cast a cloud over Office for the Mac.
However, there are two other shortcomings that Apple hasnt addressed: they are largely seen as a consumer vendor, and are not trusted in the enterprise space, primarily because they abandoned the corporate market a few years back. And they have no corporate sales or support infrastructure, having dismantled that nearly a decade ago.
So the MacOS is in better shape but Dell and Novell are in better shape to sell the solution. This suggests that the MacOS and SUSE Linux will be the first combatants, with the winner taking on Microsoft.
For Apple to win there needs to be at least one additional hardware vendor with the solution. For Linux to win it needs to be able to generate revenue and demand like Microsoft and Apple can; in addition it has to be more than just an alternative.
If both sides, Linux and Apple, were able to take the best of the other, the fight would be vastly more important and the winner would be able to take on Microsoft. If they dont, they are largely self-limiting and there may never be a winner in the preliminaries, and Microsoft remains damaged but relatively safe. Of course if Microsoft wakes up and responds to the core problem, they remain the entrenched vendor with the inherent market advantage that provides.
It is interesting to note that the limitations of all three entities are largely themselves and not their competitors.
It will also be interesting to watch this, from a distance, play out.