Linux on the desktop: On the way, slowly

The adoption of Linux on the desktop is progressing, but there won't be a "David and Goliath" single blow that suddenly slays the dominance of Microsoft's Windows, Linux advocates said at an enterprise Linux conference Wednesday.

Instead, Linux vendors and others advocating Linux on the desktop should pick their battles, they said.

Nat Friedman, vice president of research and development for the Ximian division of Novell Inc., said he often get questions from desktop users, such as "When will Linux be ready for the desktop?" But those are the wrong questions, because for many desktop users, Linux is already ready, said Friedman, a developer of the Gnome Linux desktop.

The media has portrayed the Linux versus Microsoft desktop fight as David versus Goliath, but unlike the Bible story, Linux won't fell the software giant with one blow, Friedman said.

"The question is, how do we get from 1 percent to 2 percent (of desktops), not 1 percent to 20 percent," Friedman said, during a presentation at the Enterprise Linux Forum Conference and Expo in Washington, D.C. Google statistics show that 1 percent of its search requests come from Linux machines, 3 percent from Apple Macintosh PCs, and most of the rest from various versions of Windows. A study released by IDC this month noted small growth in both Windows and Linux on the client side, with Windows maintaining more than 93 percent of the client market.

Instead of aiming for home desktop users, Linux vendors need to identify areas ripe for switching to Linux, including Unix workstations and enterprise desktops where the users run just a handful of basic programs like office and e-mail software, Friedman said. Linux isn't yet ready for home users who want to run genealogy software or most video games, he said, because those applications haven't yet been ported from Windows to Linux.

For years, some Linux advocates have been proclaiming that Linux is ready to take on Windows on the desktop, but so far, Linux has made only small inroads into the desktop market. Linux should see stronger gains in the desktop market in 2004-05, predicted Jon "maddog" Hall, executive director of Linux International, during a speech earlier in the day.

Linux on the desktop makes the most sense in corporate settings, Hall said, because corporations have systems administrators and service contracts to help desktop users migrate to Linux. Corporations can save money by using Linux on the desktop because, compared with Windows, Linux crashes less often and is less prone to virus attacks.

"Operating systems you have to reboot on average once a month are not meeting the needs of an enterprise situation," Hall added. "You need an operating system that is recognized as being able to run for years."

A Microsoft representative had no comment on desktop competition from Linux, but referred to the recent IDC numbers showing growth in Windows on desktops, which said new license shipments by Microsoft on the client side increased to 93.8 percent of the worldwide market in 2002, up from 93.2 percent in 2001.

Linux on the desktop especially makes sense in countries outside the U.S., where Microsoft is seen as the "American monopoly," he added. "Why send all that money outside of the country, when you can use that money in your own country to create jobs?" he said.

He gave examples of Linux desktop adoption, including large-scale adoptions in Spain, Brazil, Thailand and a planned move from 14,000 Windows desktops to Linux in Munich's, city government. Linux is also being used on desktops and point of sale devices at Burlington Coat Factory retail outlets and in several other U.S. corporations, Friedman noted. Linux on the desktop is "happening right now -- it has been happening for a couple of years," Friedman said.

Hall predicted that 2004-05 would be "the age of Linux on the desktop." As falling prices make computers affordable for people in developing countries, computer users there won't want to pay hundreds of dollars for Microsoft software to run those computers, he said.

"When the price of used computer systems drops to something like $50 for a good Pentium II ... you'll find more and more of these so-called Third World countries will be utilizing these (computers) and free and open software for their businesses," Hall said. "With Linux, they can do it with very little money."

Friedman, who cofounded the Linux desktop software vendor Ximian Inc. before it was acquired by Novell in August, also suggested that desktops for Linux shouldn't try to look like Windows, like most of the major Linux desktop projects do. By putting a "start" button in the lower left corner, Linux desktops are telling users their experience will be just like Windows, he said.

"What you're doing is lying to the user," Friedman said. "What you want to say from the outset is, 'this is a different desktop experience, but it's going to be easy.'"

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