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8/11/2005
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The Great Desktop Linux Controversy

There still doesn't seem to be a consensus regarding the validity of Linux as a desktop operating system. The head of IBM's software business used LinuxWorld as an opportunity to promote the promise of desktop Linux. Then again, IBM isn't the biggest fan of Microsoft. Meanwhile, a Gartner study spelled out that desktop Linux adoption is way behind where it should be at this point, or at least behind where Gartner thought it would be at this point. Here's the deal ...

There still doesn't seem to be a consensus regarding the validity of Linux as a desktop operating system. The head of IBM's software business used LinuxWorld as an opportunity to promote the promise of desktop Linux. Then again, IBM isn't the biggest fan of Microsoft. Meanwhile, a Gartner study spelled out that desktop Linux adoption is way behind where it should be at this point, or at least behind where Gartner thought it would be at this point. Here's the deal ...For the foreseeable future, Linux has a shot at being implemented as a desktop operating system in places where you simply don't need a fat client--call centers, retail outlets, etc. Otherwise, Microsoft quite simply owns the desktop. People are used to it, and even IT managers have grown accustomed to working around its flaws. At this point, there just doesn't seem to be a business case for most IT managers to add Linux to their companies' fleet of Windows-based PCs.

That's not to say it will always be this way, especially if the forces working against Microsoft want badly enough for Linux to succeed as a desktop operating system. For now, IBM seems content to promote desktop Linux in niche areas, in particular the aforementioned call-center community. "There are tens of millions of these jobs around the world where there's no unique dependency on Windows," IBM Software Group senior VP and group executive Steven Mills told me earlier this week, before his LinuxWorld keynote.

"An increasing number of businesses have become anxious about their costs in desktop environments," Mills says, adding that virus patch management is having a significant impact on cost. Mills also cites IDC data showing that, as of the end of 2004, there were 10 million desktops running Linux, a figure that includes desktops running both Linux and another operating system. The data also indicates there's a greater than 30% annual growth rate in Linux as a desktop operating system, Mills adds.

"Linux on the desktop is happening, but mostly in transactional spaces," such as in retail environments where companies use the operating system to run point-of-sale devices, says Miguel de Icaza, leader of the open-source Mono project launched in 2001 to let Unix developers build and deploy Microsoft .Net-based applications on different platforms, including Linux. Desktop Linux is lacking primarily in the area of third-party applications that companies use to perform functions specific to their business, as opposed to core desktop applications used to create documents, do instant messaging, or run E-mail. "As soon as you have to do something more specialized, Linux is at a disadvantage," he says.

IT research firm Gartner had some interesting things to say this week about desktop Linux. Based on a survey of corporate buyers in the fourth quarter of 2004, just over 1% were running Linux desktops and open-source office products in their companies. In a separate study, Gartner estimates that only 3.2% of nonconsumer computer users will run Linux and open-source office products by 2008.

But that's not necessarily the end of the debate. Last week we reported that desktop Linux provider Linspire and PC maker Wintergreen have teamed up and already shipped thousands of Linux systems to dozens of schools throughout Indiana.

Sure, one implementation doesn't imply a major trend. The important thing to note is that people are making the decision to use desktop Linux. As long as that happens, there will be interest from the all-important ISV community. With IBM and ISV support, maybe desktop Linux could make a run at the mainstream. What would it take for you to try? Better yet, what would it take for you to put it on your company's PCs?

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