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Getting Pot Odds from Open Source

"You Can Win Poker Without Having the Best Hand"

I'm a poker junkie.

Yes, the game that's been played at kitchen tables and on riverboats for the last 150 years. The game that American folk hero Wild Bill Hickok was playing in Deadwood when he was gunned down holding two pairs - aces and eights - since then know as the dead man's hand. The same game that has taken its place side-by-side with real athletic events on ESPN and has made virtual rock stars out of the guys that a few short years ago would have been considered to be living on the fringe of society.

What makes poker so seductive, at least to me, is that you can win without having the best hand. The only thing you need is skill and a "good enough" hand to play. Besides employing a great deal of skill, you must be able to grasp the concept and calculate the pot odds, which - initial investment or bet - are justified by the potential payout.

It may be a gross oversimplification but there's a certain similarity between Open Source and poker. In the seven-card stud game of Texas Hold'Em the best starting hand is two aces, one of the best drawing hands is an ace and king of the same suit also called a big slick (as is any ace and king of any suit), since it can yield an unbeatable flush or be used to draw to the best hand in poker, a royal flush.

I believe there are some similarities here. Microsoft software is like a pair of aces: it has a strong start on the desktop and an entrenched back office and data center presence. Then there's Open Source with its ace, Linux, and any number of Open Source projects as its king (Apache, Samba, Firefox, and OpenOffice.org).

This leads me to Linux on the desktop where I think there's a real opportunity. I find that most of the time Linux on the desktop is overlooked because Microsoft has the upper hand. It simply has a better starting hand though Linux has a very good draw.

The combination of Open Source development models and the market pressure for alternatives to the virus-ridden Microsoft platform are going to drive the Linux desktop into the arms of the disenfranchised PC user.

There's also a big event looming on the horizon - a new version of Windows that could coerce users into a hardware upgrade cycle to accommodate a new operating system that has potentially little incremental value over previous versions (until it's released we wouldn't know what to expect but can I point out the jump from Windows).

Despite the potential of this event, a mass migration to Linux isn't going to happen overnight. It's going to happen slowly and by the efforts of savvy IT managers looking to squeeze more value out of their IT budgets. When it's time to upgrade to the newest version of Windows a opportunistic IT executive will look at all his options and find Linux waiting to offer him an alternative or, at the least, a very strong leverage point to help drive his Windows costs down.

Adam Smith is probably turning over in his grave to see an industry, especially one as large as desktop computing, dominated by a vendor who controls 90% of the market. If you believe the conventional wisdom that efficient market competition helps regulate and drive prices down, then you are probably appalled at the virtual monopoly in desktop computing.

I was tempted to declare 2006 the year of the Linux desktop but that's happened every year since 2000 and it's getting a big old. Smart IT managers seldom take big risks by making sweeping changes. Instead they pick their spots and make changes at opportune times. When the opportunity presents itself and disruptions and acquisition cost are minimized, companies will move to the new Open Source systems and reap the benefits in spades (to use a poker analogy).

There are also thought leaders like Peter Quinn, the CIO of Massachusetts, who is breaking ground by mandating that his commonwealth's office suite vendor support open document formats to better utilize the tax dollars of his state.

The bottom line is that very seldom is the best hand presented to the IT executive. What will happen is that bit by bit value-conscious IT directors and CIOs will find opportunities to introduce Linux into their enterprise desktop infrastructure while small businesses, fed up with watching their limited profits fall prey to exorbitant software costs, will continue to evaluate and adopt Linux. So my hope in the course of 2006 is that new efforts like the Mr. Quinn's will be part of a trend rather than a shimmer of hope in the quest for open standards adoption on the desktop. This is really the first step in the quest for widely adopted Open Source desktops, so that every year can be the year of the Linux desktop.

More Stories By Mark R. Hinkle

Mark Hinkle is the Senior Director, Open Soure Solutions at Citrix. He also is along-time open source expert and advocate. He is a co-founder of both the Open Source Management Consortium and the Desktop Linux Consortium. He has served as Editor-in-Chief for both LinuxWorld Magazine and Enterprise Open Source Magazine. Hinkle is also the author of the book, "Windows to Linux Business Desktop Migration" (Thomson, 2006). His blog on open source, technology, and new media can be found at http://www.socializedsoftware.com.

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