IBM last week announced that it will team up with Austrian and Polish system integrators to supply the emerging Eastern European and Russian business PC markets with 'Microsoft-free' systems based on Red Hat Linux and open standards-based productivity software.
Under the deal, announced this week, IBM will work with Vienna-based VDEL and LX Polska, based in Poland, to sell systems based on what the companies call "Open Referent". The systems will be based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux Desktop, Lotus Notes, Lotus Sametime and Lotus Symphony.
IBM sold off its own PC arm to Lenovo in 2005, and the company insisted it isn't getting back into the PC business.
Nevertheless, Open Referent taps into a growing demand for low-cost desktop systems that aren't tied to Microsoft standards, and poses a direct challenge to Microsoft.
IBM said it is responding to demand from large businesses and government agencies in Eastern Europe and Russia, including Aeroflot, the Russian Ministry of Defence and the RusHotel hotel chain, and said Open Referent could cut their costs in half.
IBM emphasised that government agencies in particular are interested in open standards, with many governments beginning to require formats such as ODF or PDF for official documents.
"This is important because it's a secure and cost-effective Microsoft desktop alternative," said Kevin Cavanaugh, IBM vice president for Lotus Software, in a statement.
Lotus Notes will be provided for groupware, with Lotus Sametime for unified communications. Lotus Symphony is based on OpenOffice.org and uses the ISO-approved ODF family of open document formats.
The integrators are likely to use white-box PCs, with manufacturers varying from country to country, according to IBM.
Large organisations in the UK have been slow to adopt open source on the desktop, even more so than other Western European countries, according to open formats advocacy group OpenForum Europe. Its chief technology officer, Mike Banahan, once remarked that the UK is a "third-world country" compared with the rest of Europe where it comes to public- and private-sector interest in open source.
OpenForum's research found that open source is blocked by many factors, including the fact that companies are often highly uncomfortable with the available technical support options.
Q Associates, a UK IBM reseller, told us that it does significant business in Linux servers but has seen minimal interest in open-source desktops.
Desktop Linux integration isn't necessarily a straightforward process for a large organisation, despite any cost benefits. The City of Munich, for instance, has spent several years tweaking a 14,000-desktop installation of Linux on the desktop. The effort has involved developing new software such as the GOsa network administration tool to assist in the management of the desktops.