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Hewlett-Packard and Novell announced a partnership on Wednesday that will bring SuSE's open-source Linux operating system to select HP desktop and laptop systems in the second half of 2004.
Touting the new effort as the first play by a major technology vendor to offer Linux "from the desktop to the data center," Martin Fink, HP's vice president for Linux, said that the move comes at the urging of its largest corporate customers, who want to deploy a single operating system, a single distribution of Linux, from top to bottom.
"HP can now offer one consistent platform to an enterprise," he said, adding that the extension of support for Linux on desktops and laptops is simply adding to the relationship that Hewlett-Packard already has with SuSE on the server and storage side. "Customers will be able to deal with just one set of help desks, one set of training materials to deploy Linux from the desktop to the data center."
The bulk of demands by its largest customers--Fink characterized them as those in the Fortune 50--are in relatively specialized areas. "They're talking about call centers, help desks, and support centers," he said, "that run e-mail and a Web browser and a single application. They're looking for a client alternative [to Windows]. That's where the interest is right now in the large corporate customers."
HP will offer SuSE's Linux Professional on select Compaq desktop and laptop systems, Fink said, sometime in the second half of the year; but refused to get more specific than that. Even the method of delivering Linux is up in the air.
"We still need to figure out the specific delivery vehicle," Fink said. The options may run the gamut from "dropping stuff in the box or even preloads at some point in the future. At the moment all the options are open."
Fink also characterized the agreement with Novell's SuSE--the Provo, Ut.-based company acquired SuSE in January, 2004--as an expansion of its current sales of Linux-equipped desktops; it is not a start from scratch.
HP sells approximately 100,000 Linux client systems each quarter, Fink claimed, primarily to markets in Asia, India, and Eastern Europe, regions where legacy operating systems--read "Windows"--aren't as deeply entrenched as they are, for instance, in North America.
Last week, HP's Japan unit announced it would introduce new PCs in Asia with Linux pre-installed.
Nor does the announcement of support for Linux on the desktop mean that HP's walking away from its strongest OS partner, Microsoft. Essentially telling reporters and analysts to do the math, Fink pointed out that Linux accounts for only about two percent of client operating-system sales worldwide, and even the most optimistic estimates peg it as no more than ten percent by the end of the decade.
"If 155 million of the clients shipped each year ship with Windows, we need to maintain a very, very strong relationship with Microsoft," said Fink. "We're not going to stop doing that."
Fink also deflected questions about HP's future relationship with SuSE rival Red Hat, which the computer maker also uses as a supplier of Linux for some of its servers.
"Red Hat continues to play a critical role for HP," he said. "But they've made the decision to not pursue the client market at this time. From a desktop and laptop perspective, then, Red Hat is a null set," he said in explaining why HP turned to SuSE instead.
With analysts predicting annual growth rates for Linux on the desktop in the 25 to 30 percent range, HP sees an opportunity, and won't let its competitors--Sun and IBM, especially--get the jump on it. "We want to be part of that growth rate. HP will try to grow [its desktop Linux market] at least as fast as that, and, like any competitor, we hope it's even faster.