Desktop Linux: Why it may have lost its chance

By Neil McAllister, InfoWorld |  Open Source, Linux

It's time we faced it: The Year of the Linux Desktop, long foretold, isn't coming.

Year after year, breathless pundits announce that the open source OS is on the verge of a tipping point, a critical mass that will see businesses abandoning Windows in droves. And year after year, nothing happens. Is it too late for desktop Linux to matter?

[ See why desktop Linux makes a better successor to Windows XP for most business users than Windows Vista or 7 -- if only businesses would give it a chance. ]

The issue isn't whether Linux is "ready for prime time." Modern desktop-centric Linux distributions -- including Mandriva, Novell Suse, Ubuntu, and Xandros -- have made impressive strides in aesthetics, usability, management, and hardware support. Major hardware manufacturers ship systems with Linux pre-installed, and Dell reports that customer satisfaction rates are just as high for the Linux models of its Inspiron Mini 9 netbooks as for the Windows models. Today's Linux really is reliable, polished, and full-featured enough for mainstream desktop use.

Even Microsoft admits it. After years of denial, the software giant's latest SEC filings acknowledge mounting competitive pressure from Linux, and not just in the datacenter. Addressing Microsoft investors in February, CEO Steve Ballmer went as far as to suggest that the open source OS could be a greater threat to Windows than Mac OS X. That same month, Microsoft began actively recruiting a director of open source desktop strategy, a position whose responsibilities will include "influencing multimillion dollar marketing campaigns."
Enterprises aren't buying the Linux promise, nor are vendors

Yet if Microsoft is willing to spend millions on desktop Linux, the enterprise plainly is not. Even given the backlash against Vista and uncertainty surrounding Windows 7, there has been no mass exodus. By Ballmer's own figures, the greatest threat to Windows remains unlicensed Windows, not Linux. In fact, according to research from Net Applications, Linux's market share has declined in recent months, despite the breakout success of low-cost Linux netbooks.

Meanwhile, leading Linux vendor Red Hat has "no plans" to deliver a mainstream desktop Linux distribution. At the recent Open Source Business Conference, Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst admitted that he doesn't know how to make money on it. And even Novell, which markets a commercial desktop Linux distribution aimed at enterprise customers, says building a market for the OS among consumers will take years.

If major Linux vendors aren't ready to put their full faith behind Linux on the desktop, who will? More importantly, what will it take for Linux to overcome the barriers to mainstream acceptance and realize its full potential -- if it's even possible?

FUD for thought: Desktop Linux's No. 1 enemy
It's tempting to look for easy answers. Ask an open source advocate why enterprises are reluctant to adopt Linux and other free software, and the answer often comes down to three letters: FUD. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt -- the result of contradictory or even misleading information spread by proprietary software vendors -- have dogged the open source movement since its earliest days.

But simply crying FUD may hinder open source adoption more than it helps. Potential Linux users (and customers) aren't the enemy. Telling them that they've fallen prey to FUD -- in essence, calling them idiots and cowards -- can only alienate them.

Are businesses wary of Linux because of actual fear? Doubtful. Because of uncertainty and doubt? Certainly. For risk-averse enterprises in a bear market, wanting doubts assuaged and uncertainty eliminated is standard operating procedure. They would demand as much of any vendor. When the open source community reacts in a way that appears thin-skinned or defensive, it sends the message that open source is unprepared to compete against proprietary software.

It is true that resistance to open source is sometimes motivated by intuitive, emotional factors, rather than rational decision-making. But if rationality is to prevail, vendors and open source advocates must provide potential customers with the hard information necessary to facilitate the decision-making process. Merely providing an alternative isn't enough; they need to demonstrate that the alternative represents a superior value.

The danger of falling back on "the FUD defense" is that it makes it all too easy to dismiss or overlook concerns stemming from genuine customer concerns. Any product that falls short of meeting its customers' needs will ultimately fail in the marketplace. For client-side OS customers, those needs are varied and complex -- and whether Linux is truly capable of meeting them is an equally complex question.

Mac OS X is desktop Linux's real competition for user attention
Linux isn't the only alternative OS to Windows vying for a spot on the enterprise desktop. Apple has made slow but steady inroads in recent years, with some studies suggesting it now commands an unprecedented 10 percent share of the total OS market, and 23 percent of businesses have at least some Macs in use. Virtually all of those gains have come at Microsoft's expense. So why is Mac OS X enjoying such success while desktop Linux has seemingly stagnated?

Apple is known for its savvy marketing, but its campaigns seldom target the enterprise. Its core customer base consists of students, educators, creative professionals, and individual consumers, whom it courts with a brand message that's equal parts Porsche and Picasso. Far from being a business darling, Apple paints the Mac as the anti-corporate PC: You either "think different" or shop elsewhere.

Ironically, however, Apple's iconoclastic image may be precisely what has driven its recent gains in the workplace. Apple is one of the world's most successful brands. Its customers are notoriously loyal -- so much so that its following is often derisively described as a "cult." When businesses purchase Macs, it's often in response to pressure from employees who use Macs at home and would prefer the same at work.

The same won't happen for Linux. Linux has rabid fans, certainly, and it's definitely iconoclastic. But saying you're a fan of Apple is like saying you're a fan of U2; saying you're a fan of Linux is like saying you're a fan of rock 'n' roll.

That's because there's no such thing as a single "desktop Linux" -- and there's not likely to be a clear Linux leader. The design, layout, and UI of your Linux desktop will vary based on whether you use Fedora, Mandriva, Suse, Ubuntu, Xandros, or some other distribution. Some will be based on the Gnome desktop, while others will use KDE -- and even then, most distros add their own, unique customizations. Users who sit down at a random PC running Linux won't necessarily be able to say, "This is Linux, I know this." Even if they have used Linux before, the desktop may seem completely unfamiliar.

The lack of software for Linux that caters to the consumer market is a further barrier to mainstream adoption. The dearth of games for Linux may not be a business concern, but it means gamers won't want to use it at home. Neither will those who want to use their PCs to manage their home businesses; there's no professional tax preparation software for Linux. And multimedia support, a longtime Mac OS specialty, sometimes requires Linux users to jump through extra hoops, owing to intellectual property constraints. Until Linux can overcome such stumbling blocks, it will never garner the kind of user loyalty that Mac OS X enjoys.

Finally, don't underestimate the significance of the fact that Mac OS X, like Windows, ships pre-installed on laptops and desktop PCs. By comparison, the selection of consumer-level hardware that ships with Linux pre-installed remains small. Even Linux netbooks are increasingly difficult to find. Adding insult to injury, manufacturers often subsidize Windows PCs through third-party software bundles. As a result, prebuilt Linux systems may carry higher price tags than comparable Windows machines, despite shipping with a free OS.
Desktop Linux's existential question: What's my motivation?

Mainstream adoption of Linux on the desktop, then, faces a kind of chicken-and-egg problem. The major commercial Linux vendors have adopted a desktop strategy that targets the enterprise first and consumers second (if at all). But until Linux catches on with consumers -- and there are few signs that it will do so soon -- don't expect to see grassroots pressure to bring Linux into the workplace, as exists for Mac OS X. Any initiative to adopt Linux in the enterprise must therefore arise entirely from within the business -- which means it must address some key business objective.

This implies that customers who adopt Linux on the desktop will almost always do so out of a desire to reduce costs. Like it or not, Windows remains the de facto standard for business computing. Choosing Windows ensures maximum compatibility with customers, vendors, and partners. Absent significant cost savings, businesses have little incentive to look elsewhere for their desktop software needs. Therefore, a business case for Linux on the desktop must answer two key questions:

1. Can it do everything that I need it to do? (That is, can it do everything that I could do with an equivalent Windows system?)

2. How much money will I save?

Unfortunately, Linux vendors have had a hard time answering either question to enterprise customers' satisfaction. Each customer's usage profile is different. What case studies of desktop Linux's large-scale success have emerged have typically come from governments, law enforcement, higher education, and other noncommercial entities, often in emerging markets. Such organizations typically have greater leeway in setting standards of practice than traditional enterprises do. So it's chickens and eggs again: Until more enterprise customers can demonstrate success with Linux on the desktop, enterprises will remain reluctant to take the plunge.

It's the apps, stupid
Another problem that arises when customers evaluate Linux on the desktop is that they often do so with unrealistic expectations. The desire to replace Windows is itself worth examining. Asking Linux to duplicate every quirk and feature of the Windows environment is not only misguided, it's also self-defeating. If Windows is the benchmark of success, then Microsoft gets to set the terms. Seen through that lens, the competition between Windows and Linux starts to look like one of Zeno's paradoxes: No matter how much progress Linux makes, it can never reach the goal.

Further complicating the issue is the fact that, to a desktop user, "Linux" implies far more than just an OS. Choosing Linux means adopting an entirely separate ecosystem of software and applications than what is available for Windows. It's in for a penny, in for a pound: Good-bye Internet Explorer, hello Firefox. Good-bye Microsoft Office, hello or Lotus Symphony. And while many open source applications are perfectly adequate replacements for their proprietary equivalents, others may not measure up.

If proprietary software vendors would port their major applications to Linux -- if Adobe offered a Linux version of Photoshop, for example -- the decision to switch to Linux on the desktop could be much easier. Unfortunately, there's little incentive to do so. Because enterprises adopt Linux to save money, common sense suggests that commercial Linux software is inherently a low-margin business. Actual sales would be unlikely to offset the cost of developing and supporting the Linux versions.

A successful migration to Linux on the business desktop therefore depends almost entirely upon the ability of the organization in question to weather the disruption that will inevitably result. For some, the pain may be minimal; for example, organizations that conduct most of their business using standards-based Web applications may have little trouble making the transition to Linux. Companies that rely heavily on proprietary products such as Microsoft SharePoint or Exchange, however, will find it difficult or even impossible to switch without major adjustments to business processes.

The cost issue: "Free" Linux isn't the whole story
Having weighed all that, then, a potential desktop Linux customer's second question -- how much money will I save? -- can often be simplified even further: Will it be worth it?

Answering this question, however, can be incredibly difficult. The factors involved in calculating TCO (total cost of ownership) for an entire desktop OS environment, applications and all, are so numerous and complex that you might as well read tea leaves.

Just knowing when to switch can be tricky. Jumping ship to desktop Linux often means abandoning proprietary software licenses that have already been paid for. Depending on where an organization is in its normal upgrade cycle, that license issue could represent a significant hidden short-term cost.

Once the switch to open source is complete, the days of paying license fees will be over, but most enterprise customers will still want to pay for a support contract. How effective such support is at responding to any issues that may arise will determine how much those issues impact productivity -- and, by extension, the business's bottom line.

Some customers may prefer to do a "soft launch" -- switching some PCs to Linux while leaving Windows on others, for example, or using virtualization software to run key Windows applications. But this kind of hybrid environment requires IT to manage two OSes at the same time -- including user support, software updates, security, backups, and interoperability between the systems. And that drives up costs.

At the end of the day, on a per-head basis, the amount an enterprise spends on proprietary software licenses is insignificant compared to the amount it spends on salaries, health care, phone bills, travel, retirement plans, and other benefits. For a cash-strapped company in a down economy, Windows may be the least of its worries. The harsh reality is that, from an operations perspective, it may be much simpler and safer to cut costs by reducing staff than to implement a radical and disruptive enterprise-wide IT initiative.

Does desktop Linux matter? Here's how it might
Far from it being a simple case of FUD clouding the waters, the issues surrounding Linux's failure to achieve mainstream success on the desktop are complex, far-reaching, and diverse. It's such a thorny problem, in fact, that the chance of Linux taking Windows' place on the enterprise desktop is virtually nil.

But maybe it doesn't need to be.

Computing today is in a state of flux. The proliferation of broadband Internet access has made possible new modes of operation that were unthinkable even a decade ago. Increasingly, traditional desktop applications are migrating to the Web, and the rise of cloud computing means their data is going with them. Soon, typical computer users may be able to work almost entirely online, using nothing but a Web browser.

That's great news for Linux -- today's desktop Linux distributions offer browsers already. But the issue is actually bigger than that. As Jim Zemlin of the Linux Foundation put it at the recent Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit, "It's time to start asking yourselves: What is the desktop?"

As apps and data move into the cloud, the traditional PC metaphors are beginning to lose their relevance. We're entering the age of the invisible PC: a world where Windows may soon seem as archaic and limiting as the mainframes of yesterday. The new computing model is extending the digital workspace beyond the desktop to a range of new devices -- including smartphones, netbooks, and gadgets not even invented yet. Some of these devices run Linux now, and many more will in the future. The value proposition of open source for hardware manufacturers is such that Linux's future as a vital, thriving client-side OS is all but assured. It just won't be on the desktop.

The Year of the Linux Desktop isn't coming. But the Year of the Linux Client may already be here.

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