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Linux Aims For The Desktop

Security and pricing concerns are causing companies to consider alternatives to Windows, but adoption of the open-source operating system has been slow

Linux software has found lots of friends in IT departments and research labs that like its low price, flexibility, and crash-proof reputation. Now tech companies such as Novell, Red Hat, and Sun Microsystems are beginning to market those same virtues on the computer desktop, where Microsoft's Windows has a virtual lock on sales. There's an open window of opportunity, but few customers seem to have noticed the breeze.

Additional charges for upgrades, a monthly march of security patches, and technical changes to the next-generation Longhorn version of Windows have left Microsoft perhaps vulnerable to giving away some of its desktop dominance. "Security issues, pricing concerns, and licensing flexibility are driving companies, as well as individual users, to consider desktop alternatives," Geoffrey Mogilner, an analyst with Decatur Jones Equity Partners, writes in an E-mail.

To capitalize on this, Linux distributor Red Hat this spring came out with a desktop-productivity suite that runs on Linux, and the company plans to update it with more security features next year. Novell, which in the past year has acquired SuSE Linux AG and Linux desktop software maker Ximian Inc., is planning its own PC Linux launch by the end of the year. Sun Microsystems has been selling a suite of open-source desktop software to companies for $100 per user and earlier this year won a contract with Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to sell Linux-based home computers on its E-commerce site. Smaller companies such as Linspire Inc.--the new name Lindows chose after Microsoft sued it--and Turbolinux Inc. also target PC users seeking a Microsoft alternative.

"The biggest challenge is helping people understand that they have a choice on the desktop," says Mike Ferris, a Red Hat marketing manager.

Red Hat and Novell say Linux's heritage in the data center, coupled with the open-source community's development of a "security-enhanced" version of Linux, could give the operating system an edge when it comes to keeping PCs safe from viruses and other maladies that have plagued Windows users. Other vendors, most notably Sun, see Linux as a reliable, Unix-derived operating system that can run everything from the back office to the desktop.

According to market researcher IDC, Windows accounted for about 94% of PC operating-system sales in 2002, the last year for which data is available. Linux accounted for 2.8% of sales, and Apple Computer's Mac OS held 2.9% of the market. By 2006, IDC projects Linux will double its share.

That's still small potatoes, though. What desktop Linux lacks is Windows' brand-name trust, familiar controls, and compatibility with the spectrum of files and desktop software PC users rely on every day. Ease of use is one sticking point. "Linux will never make a big dent in the desktop market unless it's user friendly," says Maj. Ron Dodge, IT director at West Point U.S. Military Academy, where Windows rules on PCs and servers.

Then there's the cost of switching from Windows. There's little doubt Linux is cheaper to buy. Hewlett-Packard last month introduced its first Linux notebook packed with an open-source productivity suite, rewritable CD drive, DVD player, and wireless networking for $1,450. The same model running Windows XP Professional is priced at $50 more. But Linux isn't free. Red Hat's Desktop package, for example, starts at $2,500 for a "starter pack" that includes support for 10 users, a month of phone support, and a year of online tech support.

"The cost of ripping Windows out is too high," says Jeryl Wolfe, CIO and VP at McCormick & Co., a $2.3 billion-a-year maker of kitchen spices and other condiments. "Replacing Windows with Linux on the desktop is too big of a change for our user community."

Emcor CIO Joseph Puglisi relies on time-tested Windows.

Emcor CIO Puglisi relies on time-tested Windows.
At Emcor Group Inc., which builds and maintains industrial electrical, telecom, and plumbing systems and had $4.5 billion in sales last year, CIO Joseph Puglisi relies on time-tested Windows to ensure that he can manage the 5,000 PCs used across Emcor's thousands of worldwide construction and engineering sites.

"If you're a large IT shop or have a large IT staff, you can move to Linux and cut your costs," he says. "We have little IT support at the company level, and it's very difficult in that type of environment to introduce any kind of change. A move to Linux on the desktop would be a radical change."

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