Open Source Desktops May Not Happen for Small Biz

The window of opportunity for OSS desktop success in small business may have passed.

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For all the talk of how open source software is kicking butt and taking names in the cloud space (see: Red Hat, Ubuntu, Novell) and in embedded space (see Android, MeeGo), there's one area where open source has consistently fallen woefully short: providing solutions for small businesses.

This is a weird sort of failure, too, because on the surface it seems like open source software products--with their collective low price tag, solid support, and better security--would be a perfect fit for the needs of smaller businesses, which often need superlative computing capabilities but can only afford the least-expensive hardware and software due to budget constraints.

Yet, to date, there have been few serious efforts to push open source software into the small business space. Off the top of my head, ClearOS from the Clear Foundation is the most successful effort, followed by Zentyal, an Ubuntu-based server system that's making a little noise lately.

Occasionally, you will hear companies like Red Hat or Novell make some token comments about meeting the needs of small businesses--but let's face it, they know the enterprise market is where the serious revenue lives, and by golly, that's where they're going to focus their efforts.

The historical problem, as I see it, has not been with the software itself. Linux is perfectly good for small business, as is OpenOffice.org/LibreOffice and a slew of other applications. There are gaps in the toolkit: while excellent point-of-sale clients and servers exist for Linux, there is still a lack of bookkeeping software. Actually, there is open source accounting and bookkeeping software out there, but no one wants to migrate to it because it's not 100% compatible with what they have now.

These gaps (real or perceived) are not insurmountable, but even if they are filled, I don't think there will be a large rate of adoption of open source desktop software by small businesses in the near future--indeed, if ever.

For small business, I think the window of opportunity for desktop deployments of open source software may have already passed. We had the shot, and we missed it.

The fault may not have been with the software itself--not completely, at any rate. I believe the difficulty of delivering a desktop platform to small businesses was a big factor, too. Shipping desktop software involves setting up very wide and very shallow sales channels, with smaller support revenue coming in per user, yet with training and support needs on a par with any needs individual enterprise users might have.

I'm not trying to lay all the blame on the platform, but delivering open source software to small business in the desktop "metaphor" is very difficult, faced with sales, marketing, and distribution costs--not to mention the constant pressure on the market form proprietary competition.

All hope is not lost, and recent activity in the open source world shows clear signs as to how open source software can succeed in the small business arena. I've already mentioned two clear paths: cloud and embedded/mobile. Each one of these platforms, whether used separately or used together, afford a much easier pathway to deliver open source software to small business.

In fact, the path to serious computing is potentially a bigger win for small business than any other computer solution they have had before. For a (finally) affordable price, any small business plugged into the right cloud solution can have access to the same tools the enterprise businesses use.

The benefits to open source software makers is equally high: instead of having to find and sell to thousands of small businesses, the software only needs to marketed and deployed at the cloud provider level. As small businesses come to the cloud, they can be using open source solutions based on what fits their needs and budgets. I wouldn't be surprised if some cloud providers (especially software-as-a-service vendors) started "white boxing" existing open source apps for their customers, such as a re-branded operating system or office suite.

The embedded and mobile channel also offers a big conduit into the small business space, because smartphones are getting very prolific, and the open Android platform is already very popular in that space. This proliferation will afford small business users and open source developers a big opportunity to connect with each other.

Is the open source small business desktop completely dead? In its older form, I think it might be. Canonical is splitting Ubuntu sharply away from the "traditional" desktop interface, trying to muscle in on the mobile platform alongside Android and MeeGo, while hanging on to its legacy desktop functionality. So, they can see the writing on the wall.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Red Hats and Novells of the world are driving straight towards the cloud, hoping to capture what is sure to be a very lucrative cloud provider market.

These actions are leaving the "traditional" desktop behind. But for small business users, that may be a good thing, since cloud and mobile may finally deliver the promise of open source software to small business that desktop could not.

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