What are we to make of IBM's silence about its desktop Linux policy?

A while back, chairman and CEO Sam Palmisano challenged the company to move its desktops to Linux by the end of 2005. What's clear is that this hasn't happened and doesn't look like happening. And there's probably a good reason.

IBM is not alone in its policy of moving to Linux on the desktop, of course, though the number of organisations of any size that are mandating such a move is small indeed. Novell is however following this path -- though as a major vendor of Linux software, you'd expect that.

In fact, one Novell marketing manager proudly showed me his Linux-sporting laptop a few months back, pointing out that everyone within Novell was going Linux, following its acquisitions of both development house Ximian in August 2003 and SuSE in November 2003. With the first purchase came a product that has now transmogrified into the Novell Linux Desktop, launched officially last November.

Yet officially, Novell -- supplier to IBM, one of its major shareholders, of much of its Linux software -- is taking a more measured approach to the process of Linux migration at the client level. Deliberately playing down any hint of a repetition of the company's adventures in the early 1990s with UnixWare and other divertissements, when the company noisily started and lost a direct fight with Microsoft for desktop supremacy, Novell's statement on the desktop's release said, "Novell Linux Desktop is not about the wholesale replacement of your Windows systems, but rather it's about identifying where and when an open source desktop can be a sensible, cost-effective alternative."

One spokesperson called it "eating our own dog food"; Novell reckons that the quality of its consulting services has improved following the migration.

IBM's Palmisano on the other hand is probably wishing he'd kept his mouth shut. The advertised plan was to increase the Linux desktop population from 15,000 to 40,000 by the end of 2005. It became public in January 2004, just weeks after IBM's systems boss Bob Greenberg formed an internal initiative called the Open Desktop project to facilitate the move.

"Our chairman has challenged the IT organisation, and indeed all of IBM to move to a Linux based desktop by the end of 2005," Greenberg wrote in a November 2003 memo. "This means replacing productivity, Web access, and viewing tools with open standards based equivalents," he said.

But doing it in an orderly fashion -- even assuming you could get buy-in from the individuals themselves, which in itself is a huge assumption -- is no overnight matter. And the fact IBM is still using Wine -- Windows emulation -- to run mission-critical applications such as Lotus Notes, its own product, is a demonstration of just how hard the process is.

And IBM Linux and grid services executive John Palfreyman is recently reported as saying that Linux desktop migration wasn't a religious matter but was driven by business issues, and that IBM would make no public commitment about switching over as many clients as possible.

Just goes to show how hard it is to run a large organisation and keep it all in line. Especially if the boss is the one out of line. And even more so when the real answer is the usual one about the issue being business-driven - which is of course exactly as it should be.

So maybe the question isn't what we make of IBM's silence. It's whether or not we care. If it happens, it'll happen for the right reasons, something that ought to reassure IBM's customers. Sadly, this may not discourage those nurturing religious attachments to a piece of software.