Doing the desktop waddle

All Linux vendors need to do to break Microsoft's death grip on the desktop is unravel a few chicken-or-the-egg type mysteries.

Which comes first? Widespread demand for Linux operating systems preloaded on PCs, or hardware manufacturers anxious to do the loading? The latter are as scarce as hen's teeth today.

Which comes first? Confidence among would-be converts that Linux application support -- for the apps they need most -- soon will approach that of Windows? Or a developer community that sees enough demand to make that support happen? Too many developers put all their apps in one basket as things stand.

None of which means desktop Linux isn't creating a buzz -- witness the major product development and marketing commitments from IBM Corp., Novell Inc., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Red Hat Inc. The penguin recently waddled past Apple Computer Inc.'s Mac OS into second place in the desktop operating system market, according to IDC. However, second place means a 3 percent share, which IDC only sees rising to 6 percent come 2007. But progress is progress, the Linux advocates say.

Besides, those figures don't paint a true picture, says Bill Weinberg, open source architecture specialist for Open Source Development Labs (OSDL), an industry consortium dedicated to advancing the cause. Market surveys account only for commercial desktop Linux and not myriad free downloads and installs, leading some to peg what IDC calls 3 percent at anywhere from three to 12 times higher. Weinberg says he believes "the truth is somewhere in the middle."

Where the floor is today and where the ceiling may be tomorrow are matters of great debate for those who follow Linux.

The breakout dilemma

"It's unclear to what degree Linux will ever displace Windows so long as it's merely a cheaper but almost as good alternative -- which is how it's generally positioned today," says Gordon Haff, a senior analyst at Illuminata Inc. "The breakout would be to deliver a Linux-based desktop system that was compellingly better than Windows in function, look and feel, or some other dimension." However, Haff adds, such a breakout advancement also could prove a challenge for Linux vendors because it would entail new training.

Linux desktop adoption really should be viewed as an outgrowth of Linux in the data center, Weinberg says.

"For the corporate information worker, technical workstation, financial transaction terminals, data entry -- anywhere the scope of activity is well understood and where installation and support are backed by IT staff -- that's a very good place" for desktop Linux, he says. "Our members who have adopted Linux in the data center are moving in that direction."

They're moving with good reason, says Jeremy White, founder of the Linux Desktop Consortium and CEO of Codeweavers Inc., maker of the CrossOver Office program that lets users run applications such as Microsoft Office and Lotus Notes on Linux. Desktop Linux has made great strides from a technological standpoint, he says.

"There are challenges, there are warts -- pretty serious challenges and warts -- but technologically both the Gnome and KDE (user interfaces) are pretty comfortable. You can install them pretty reliably on a laptop now," White says. Besides the "cheaper/just as good" deployment issue, he spotlights limited applications support as one of desktop Linux's more serious challenges.

"There are some great applications for Linux -- the Mozilla suite, the Firefox browser is fantastic, there are great e-mail clients. . . . But the real issue is that you can't get the apps you want or the apps that you're familiar with. That's a nasty Catch-22," he says.

No apps, no go

Pete Collins, CIO for the city of Austin, Texas, has found that to be the case. With the dual motivations of a major municipal budget shortfall and utter displeasure with his Microsoft software support contract that expires the end of this year, Collins has pilot-tested the OpenOffice productivity suite. As much as he liked the suite, he says he cannot see a full-scale migration to Linux.

"There are some places that we may be able to utilize it, but not across the board," Collins says of the city's 5,200 Windows seats. "Until developers will support applications in the Linux world, we can't go to the next level."

Windows-based public safety applications pose an obstacle for any move to Linux on the desktop, Collins says.

The story is similar at Young Electric Sign Company Inc. (YESCO) in Salt Lake City. YESCO uses a lot of Linux: for e-mail, DNS, network bandwidth monitoring, intrusion detection, syslog servers and more, says Bret Anderson, IT manager at the company. He and two systems administrators even use it on their own desktops.

But as for wider desktop use? "We have considered deploying Linux to some desktops, but we could never get executive management support to offset the gripes we would encounter from users," Anderson says. "There was no way that we were going to try it on any of our design or engineering users; they are all pretty savvy Windows users, and they would make a huge stink about the change."

Besides, Windows is easier to use, Anderson says. "Red Hat has come a long way, but, it needs to go further," he says. "I had to find software so that I could view .wmv and .avi files, and some of the codecs don't work correctly; .tif files don't view correctly. It's not exactly easy to load plugins into Mozilla. SuSE didn't like the hard drive controller on my motherboard, so I couldn't even get it installed. The list goes on and on."

For other users, breaking the Windows dependency is worth the extra effort desktop Linux might entail. Such is the case at Center Automotive in Sherman Oaks, Calif., where IS manager Kent Freeman runs a mix of Red Hat 9 and Fedora Core 1 and 2 on a few IT desktops with a willingness -- though no firm timetable -- to deploy Linux on all 150 of his desktops.

"We are looking to see if Linux on the desktop will allow us to move away from our dependency on Microsoft," Freeman says. "The expense, vendor lock-in, product licensing, application and (operating system) security issues, patch management and general system resource misuse/abuse are all a huge drain on our budget and resources. "

Freeman calls the Linux desktop systems he has seen stable, fast and reliable, while also crediting them with saving time because patches can be applied without rebooting.

"In contrast, if we have 150 Windows systems that require a patch, and a single patch reboot takes 2 to 3 minutes, that equals 300 to 450 minutes of lost end-user productivity," he says. "If there is more than one patch, well, you get the idea. This inefficiency is a real-world problem that Microsoft has failed to address."

The money myth

Interestingly, though, a number of IT consultancy reports issued over the past year have argued that long-term considerations, in particular applications support and training, will offset any initial savings that might be gained from Linux rather than Windows. The Linux evangelists give little ground on the point, however. "I absolutely think there is ROI, but I don't think your payoff is in Year One," says White of the Linux Desktop Consortium. "Your time to ROI is a three- or four-year horizon."

White's counterpart at the OSDL insists that Linux on the desktop passes the ROI test where it counts most: in real-world deployments.

"We don't have definitive data, but we know that our members' customers are not choosing Linux because it's more expensive or because they have an emotional or ideological commitment to it," Weinberg says. "They are finding that the (total cost of ownership) is better over the owned lifetime of the device. Because Linux doesn't require constant, aggressive upgrades to hardware, the deployed lifetime of your Linux workstation is longer so you have a better chance of amortizing the costs."

Still, the bottom line is that few see anything but a marathon sales job ahead for desktop Linux.

"It's just a long, hard slog," White says. "I think what everyone is looking for is sexy, sudden, magical, transformative spike, and I think this instead is what we do: We stay in the trenches and keep fighting."

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Paul McNamara

Network World
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