The Linux operating system has risen from Norwegian obscurity to the limelight in less than a decade. As 1999 drew to a close, Linux IPOs were beginning to look commonplace, hardware and software manufacturers alike were announcing serious support for the platform and the computing world was struggling to understand the phenomenon. Whether you embrace or dismiss the brainchild of Finnish codemaster Linus Torvalds, Linux has made an impact in the enterprise. According to a summer 1999 survey conducted by the MERIT Project, an initiative of software giant Computer Associates, some 49 percent of IT managers rated Linux as "important to essential" for their enterprise infrastructure in 2000. More importantly, over one-third of the respondents indicated that they planned to implement database management, application management and personal productivity solutions using Linux.
That's an important distinction for an operating system that has often been dismissed as purely a Web-server or thin-server play due to the extremely heavy penetration of Linux-based Apache Web systems in use at high-profile ISPs around the globe.
So with a sturdy number of IT professionals indicating that Linux will play a role beyond the niche of the Web server, the question is inevitable: Will Linux have an impact on customer relationship management? Or will it merely serve as a footnote or incidental role in the growing CRM space? Opinion is split.
"The closer to the infrastructure of the Internet [your CRM application] is, the more likely it will be to see Linux play a significant role," says George Weiss, vice president and research director for Gartner Group.
Because Linux at its core is essentially a variant of Unix, its CRM fortunes are largely dependent on attitudes toward Unix among CRM developers and adopters. Laurie Orlov, an analyst with Forrester Research, says, "On the server side, you'll see ports of CRM software to Linux once the numbers are there, and probably after you see ports to Solaris, HP-UX and IBM AIX," the older, more established Unix "flavors."
On the average computer store shelf, you can find as many as a half-dozen or more versions of Linux, and although they have the same technology at their core, some of the surrounding software layers are substantially different, enough to cause compatibility problems. "In terms of the way you install and set up systems, there's no single standard, so there may be differences when an application tries to access the operating system," observes Gartner's Weiss. Although many programs work perfectly well across all major editions of Linux, most major Linux application vendors team up with some or all of the "big four" Linux distributors (Red Hat, SuSE, Caldera and TurboLinux) in order to eliminate compatibility problems. How CRM vendors will deal with the compatibility issue remains to be seen.
Silence Is Golden
Many of the heavy hitters in the CRM marketplace, either due to a lack of demand or strong strategic alliances with competing OS developers, have said nary a word about the upstart operating system. That silence is particularly profound when it comes to deploying CRM on user desktops. The attraction of Linux as a desktop operating system is clear enough: Every license is free. In a hardware market where prices for office-ready PCs are dropping below $500, sensitivity to the price of operating system software is bound to start entering the value equation, and Linux scores an early victory. But the disadvantage lies in its Unix heritage and intricate configuration modes, leading Yankee Group's Christopher Selland to declare, "Taking a typical CRM user and putting him in front of Linux is like putting a bus driver at the controls of a 747."
To varying degrees, all of the major Linux distributors are working to overcome that perception, perhaps none more than Corel, which released its own Corel Linux a few months ago. Corel Linux seeks to minimize the need for user interaction during installation and cut down on some of the more quirky Unix legacies. But even Corel has to admit that its initial target audience is the Linux or general technology enthusiast who might be already considering Linux. Looking ahead, the company is hopeful that its alliance with PC motherboard manufacturer PC Chips-that will see Corel Linux bundled with some 15 to 20 million PC motherboards next year, largely to business and industrial clients-will encourage adoption in the enterprise.
That's not enough to convince Forrester's Orlov, however. "I don't think anybody's going to do it. Companies have already made their investment in Windows 98 and in being able to remotely manage those machines, and they're not going to throw that away."
"In the mid-market, Linux is a great deployment platform for ERP. As you begin to see the ERP applications move over, you'll begin to see the sales force automation."
Some CRM applications implicitly work just fine in Linux environments, thanks to third-party Linux software support. The growing number of pure Web CRM applications, usable from any Java-enabled browser client, should run without comment or complaint for a Linux user armed with Netscape Communicator, which Netscape supports on essentially equal footing with Windows, MacOS and other platforms. Siebel systems can be counted among those companies who quietly support Linux end-user environments, thanks to a February 1999 alliance with Sun and its Java technology.
The catch to Web-enabled environments can sometimes come in the form of browser plug-ins. Although the core Web and Java technologies in Netscape for Windows and Netscape for Linux are virtually identical, some developers add code that invisibly integrates with the browser to enhance the functionality of the Java applications. In those cases, the plug-ins would have to be ported to Linux in order to enable a Linux client to participate, and that would require a specific commitment to Linux from the software developer.
Of course, Microsoft Internet Explorer is not expected to see the light of day on Linux any time soon, which could lead to another set of incompatibility issues for developers who take advantage of IE's unique features and Windows integration. The trouble with implicit support is that it's not explicit, and CRM customers may be less than enthusiastic about deploying their system on computers that their vendor and implementation partner may not be able to assist them with.
Another concern over Linux on the desktop is the ability to support non-CRM productivity needs. The concern is largely unfounded, with the complete Netscape Communicator suite of Web, news and mail utilities available to Linux users, along with a seemingly endless selection of custom Internet tools. For office productivity, there are no fewer than three commercial packages: Corel WordPerfect, Sun's starOffice and Applixware, all solid products in their own right. But, as with Internet Explorer, Microsoft Office 2000 will not be appearing on a Linux desktop near you.
Because Linux is long on modern Internet client technologies, Selland does see the potential for desktop CRM applications for the fully connected, desk-bound CRM user. "One place where it might make sense is in the call center, where you're wired all the time," he says. Call center reps are among the more likely to rely on a static, limited array of applications which could be served by the existing Linux software base plus their customer access screen.
Chances For Success
Virtually everyone agrees that regardless of Linux's potential, there is simply not a lot of overwhelming demand for Linux-based CRM solutions as of yet. No company makes that point more succinctly than Applix. Long a supporter of Linux with their Applixware office suite, Applix has not yet ported its iCustomer.Advantage package to Linux and has not announced a specific timetable for doing so.
R.J. Grandpre, vice president of Applix's Linux division, explains, "We've not seen a lot of demand for running SFA or CRM applications on the back end, and we're not seeing organizations that are pushing for these applications running on Linux."
One CRM developer who sees the demand and has a CRM timetable is Oracle, who is planning a May 2000 rollout of its CRM server suite on the Linux platform. Oracle thinks Linux is up to the challenge. "People are realizing that Linux is the ultimate commodity operating system," says Jeremy Burton, vice president of Internet Platform Marketing. "It's relatively simple, and it's very, very cheap, and it can do a pretty good job as a server."
Oracle was greatly encouraged by the solid response it received from Linux developers to its products. Over 100,000 downloads of the Oracle 8i for Linux database server have been recorded-more downloads than for the Windows NT version.
Lotus also thinks the time is right for Linux and CRM. "Since early 1998, our partners have been petitioning us to bring out Lotus Domino for Linux as part of our cross-platform strategy," says Don Harbison, worldwide Lotus Domino brand manager. He points out that existing Domino-based CRM applications can be easily moved to run on a Linux Domino server, and they can even dish out information to Linux clients running the Netscape browser. "Domino is Domino is Domino, on any platform," says Harbison. "Whether Domino is running on Linux or on AS/400 or on Solaris, the CRM solution is going to be the same."
Lotus saw the same sort of enthusiasm as Oracle among Linux developers. From August 10, 1999, the initial release of the Domino for Linux preview version, until mid-November, Lotus recorded some 65,000 downloads.
Gartner Group research indicates that fully 80 to 90 percent of new Linux servers shipped are heading for ISPs or for use as intranet/extranet general-purpose servers. But Burton says that doesn't preclude their usefulness in a CRM setting. "Web CRM means you'll have more users on it than ever before. So you can probably keep your existing back-end data server, but you'll want to put five to 10 Web servers in front of it to service the user requests," he says. "Linux is very powerful there. And increasingly, we're seeing Linux adopted [on the back-end] as well."
The Accidental CRM Platform?
Linux may very well end up "backing into" the CRM marketplace. "If [Linux vendors] establish themselves really well, it becomes a surround strategy," says Weiss. "If you get Linux surrounding quite a few of the corporate applications in the center, around the larger database application, then it could end up eroding the position [of existing systems] and you'll get Linux top-to-bottom."
Red Hat, the leading Linux distributor, predicts that ERP will be the window of opportunity for Linux to eventually migrate to CRM. The company has been building strong alliances with ERP vendors, SAP in particular. "CRM is increasingly becoming integrated with ERP applications, because it's all integrated data," says Paul McNamara, general manager of Red Hat's Enterprise Business unit. "In the mid-market, Linux is a great deployment platform for ERP. As you begin to see the ERP applications move over, you'll begin to see the sales force automation." And, of course, the recent spate of ERP/CRM corporate mergers greatly bolsters McNamara's argument.
Applix's Grandpre sees the evolution of the Linux software market to include CRM as inevitable. "It's going to take the Red Hats and SuSEs and Calderas of the world to step up and begin to try to take market share away in the desktop and on the backside in other areas than just Web sites," he says. "And it'll happen, because the market [for Web sites] will saturate. They'll have to look for other applications to target their systems to. And when you look at being able to pull in an application at about 75 percent of the cost with a longer life span than a Microsoft product, it's bound to happen." If and when it does happen, Linux may end up giving Windows and the "old man" Unix operating systems a run for their money on yet another battlefield.