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9/18/2007
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7 Reasons Why Linux Won't Succeed On The Desktop

The open-source operating system is destined to stay stuck in the shadow of Windows, blogger Alex Wolfe opines. Read why he believes desktop Linux hasn't--and isn't--going to have any significant impact, then join the debate by posting your opinion in the discussion section at the article's end.

What about the perennial "this'll be the year of Linux" argument? Quoth the Wikipedia:

"Since at least 2001, a meme known as '(year) will be the year of Linux on the Desktop' has been published by a number of tech-related magazines, referring to the prior year's experiences of supposed 'gains' for Linux adoption by business corporations; these gains can vary in reason, such as the installation of a Linux distribution onto the desktops of workers for organizations or companies who may not be immediately or otherwise involved in the computing industry, or the acceleration of development for specific applications which find their greatest usages on desktop Linux distributions, or the pre-installation of specific Linux distributions onto PCs being sold by PC manufacturers such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, or other corporations. The meme, which is used on an annual basis, has been roundly criticized as redundant and overreaching."

Such memes are clearly self-replicating (that's why they're called memes). I know that, in years past, whenever I was ordered by my bosses to do a "state of Linux" article, I'd call the usual suspects and ask them if "this'll be the year." They always told me it would be. Twelve months later, I'd repeat the whole process.

Perhaps the best reality check I found comes via an N.C. State University survey of users of ResNet, the residential network for students, which found that "Windows usage has consistently been over 90%. Linux usage was at its highest in 1998 at 2.47%. It dropped to less than 1% in 2003 and has plateaued [in 2006] around 1.5%."

On now to the seven reasons Linux won't succeed on the desktop:

1
Prohibitive application porting costs

According to a 2005 report from OSDL, one of the main impediments to the adoption of Linux on the desktop is the lack of support for popular apps. Specifically, the report cited Photoshop, PageMaker, AutoCAD, and Quicken.

Nothing has changed in the intervening two years. Adobe's Photoshop and PageMaker (and its successor, InDesign), as well as Quicken, are still available on Windows and Mac only; AutoCAD only comes in Microsoft flavor. True, you can run Photoshop and Quicken using Codeweavers' Crossover Linux, a shell that sits on top of Linux and enables Windows apps to run. However, by definition, only sophisticated users do this.

One can well understand why garage software shops might avoid Linux and attempt instead to mine the more populated Windows user base. But why does one suppose that major vendors like Adobe and AutoDesk avoid Linux? It's because the payoff isn't worth the trouble.

Even if a company's marketing department can be confident that it'll sell a lot of Linux software, qualifying Linux apps is a logistical nightmare and a costly mess. This will remain a stumbling blog for large and small vendors alike.

The reason is, there's no such thing as a single "Linux." If you want to qualify an app on the open-source OS, you've got to test and verify that it runs on a bunch of specific distributions. Commercially speaking, this means a minimum of four distros -- desktop and enterprise varieties from Red Hat and Novell. Then, a vendor has to decide if it wants to support a popular community distro like Ubuntu.

I contacted Bill Weinberg, a respected Linux pundit who used to be an evangelist at OSDL. Here's how he explained it: "Diversity and choice, hallmarks of Linux and open source, come with a price tag of their own -- fragmentation. Besides the big two, Red Hat and Novell/SUSE, there are distribution divides on lines of commercial versus free, server versus desktop, and regional requirements.

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