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5/4/2004
02:22 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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Desktop Linux: Some Opportunities, But Don't Hold Your Breath

I am not generally impressed by my fellow journalists. We're an unsavory lot, with poor grooming habits, bad teeth and halitosis. The only time we move fast is when the bartender brings the check - and then we move in the opposite direction.

I am not generally impressed by my fellow journalists. We're an unsavory lot, with poor grooming habits, bad teeth and halitosis. The only time we move fast is when the bartender brings the check - and then we move in the opposite direction.

However, I did get a chance to meet Doc Searls at the recent Linux Desktop Summit, and I was pretty impressed.

Doc, a contributor to LinuxJournal, respected blogger, and co-author of the marketing best-seller, "The Cluetrain Manifesto," gave a presentation at the conference about opportunities for Linux on the desktop.

But first a few words about Linux Desktop Summit. Or, rather, one word: Depressing. The conference was tucked away in a corner of the Del Mar Fairgrounds in San Diego, with a few hundred attendees, and a few rows of exhibitors (this year's news: exhibitors had actual booths! instead of just tabletop displays!). Presenters all spoke about the same handful of Linux deployments in some small cities around the world. I did not come away with the impression that Linux was poised to challenge Microsoft on the desktop - indeed, I came away pretty discouraged, thinking Linux was unlikely to even muss Bill Gates's hair.

(Full disclosure: I only stayed for most of one day of the two-day conference. Still, as the saying goes, you don't have to eat a whole egg to know that it's bad.)

But Doc was a day-brightener. He gave a lively and funny talk describing where Linux is likely to gain traction on the desktop, and where it is likely to face problems.

But first, he described where the PC market appears to be going. He said the market appears to be splitting in three directions. First, corporate desktops are becoming commodities. IT managers are looking for PCs to be cheap, standardized, and undifferentiated, like office furniture and phones. When a company hires an office worker, the new employee gets a standardized cubicle, desk, chair, and phone. Nobody cares who makes these things or - in the case of the phone - what software it runs, except for a very few specialists who are paid to care.

That's the direction corporate PCs are going, says Doc, and I agree: The main criteria for commercial PCs are that they're cheap, easy to maintain, and can do a few basic things like e-mail and run a web browser. What software does the PC run? In the future, nobody will care, except for a few specialists who are paid to care. These thing are starting to happen already.

The second PC segment is the home PC. Microsoft and the mass media companies are attempting to take over home PCs and turn them into video and music servers, running software and files protected by Digital Rights Management (DRM), Doc said.

The third market is the traditional, general-purpose personal computer market. That's increasingly becoming the domain of notebook computers, Doc said.

Of the three markets, he said Linux is likely to get the best traction in the commodity corporate desktop, where low licensing costs will be a big factor, and most users don't need all the rich features that proprietary desktops offer. Notebook PCs will be harder to gain a footing in, because notebooks lack a single, standardized configuration across vendors - a "white box" notebook - and Linux developers, to date, have not cultivated close ties with notebook peripherals vendors, like NVidia and ATI, as Microsoft has.

How likely were these things to actually happen? Doc didn't say. And I noted that he himself was using an Apple notebook computer to run his presentation, which was done using Microsoft PowerPoint.

In Linux Pipeline This Week
One perennial obstacle to Linux on the desktop is application support. The Linux community spends a good deal of energy attempting to get Windows applications ported to Linux or - as in the case of OpenOffice.org - replicating the capabilities of the Windows application on Linux.

A few weeks ago, the mainstream press was all abuzz about an astonishing! computer! breakthrough! - an Israeli kid had developed an open source application that allowed Linux to run on top of Windows, supposedly without any significant performance degradation. Intrigued, we asked reviewer Ross Greenberg to look into it - he says it's not revolutionary as the mainstream press claims (the mainstream press hyping up a technology story?! Golly, that NEVER happens!) but it is, nonetheless, pretty impressive - and it's only in early beta stage.

My pessimism about Linux replacing Windows should not be construed as a gloominess about Linux overall. Far from it: only a fool can deny Linux's strength on the server, and in new classes of devices and embedded applications, including smart cell phones. New contributor Ron Miller joins us this week with a look at the Linux cell phone market, where Linux offers a vendor-neutral alternative to Windows and Symbian and is gaining traction, especially in Asia.

And millions of people do use Linux as a desktop. Many of those use Red Hat, which has introduced a new desktop version.

Look for links to those stories in about one press of your "Page Down" button.

P.S. I only used the word "traction" three times in this piece. It just seems like more.

(This piece appeared in the Linux Pipeline Newsletter for Tuesday, May 4, 2004. It has been edited for the web.)

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