The Year of the Linux Desktop:

2003 will be marked by the emergence of three new enterprise desktop offerings. Corporations seem interested, especially with Microsoft boosting prices. So, once again, we ask: Is this the year of the Linux desktop?


Can Linux cut it on the desktop? That was the question Linux Magazine asked its readers three years ago, promoting an interview with Corel Software CEO Michael Cowpland. At the time, Corel wasn’t alone in making a play for the desktop PC. Other companies, for example Eazel and games maker Loki Software, built their businesses around what they saw as a promising Linux desktop market. But all of them were wrong.

Three years later, Corel is out of the Linux business, its former CEO hounded by Canadian securities regulators, and Eazel and Loki have gone belly up. With less customer shipments than the Macintosh, the Linux desktop remains a minority player.

And yet, the Linux desktop dream seems closer to reality than ever before. In fact, the resurgence of interest in client-side Linux might just be one of the big stories of 2003. Red Hat — which two years ago seemed to be moving out of the Linux desktop business — is readying an enterprise desktop offering, as is its rival, SuSE, and, most intriguing of all, so is Sun Microsystems.

Lindows has replaced Corel as the high-flying consumer Linux company, and small independent software vendors like The Kompany.com, Ximian, and games maker TransGaming Technologies have jumped into the action.

But why this new interest in the Linux desktop? The investment climate is much tougher for these new companies than it was three years ago, and while Linux server shipments are posing a serious threat to Microsoft’s server business, it’s a whole different story on the desktop. According to the most recent International Data Corporation (IDC) numbers available, with only 1.7 percent of the market, Linux was the number three desktop OS, in terms of commercial units shipped, in 2001. Even if one factors in Linux’s free downloads, Linux’s market share remains miniscule.

Ironically, Linux’s best chance at claiming the desktop may not come from a grass-roots movement of Linux boosters who have historically done so much to advocate its use, but from corporate IT: After years of skepticism, IT has finally come around to accepting Linux as a low cost and reliable server operating system, and is beginning to be excited by its configurability and flexibility as a corporate desktop.

Just as Microsoft established itself as a credible enterprise brand on the desktop, and used that exposure to build a server business, Linux appears poised to do the reverse and use its newfound enterprise credibility to make an assault on the desktop.

The Players Come Out to Play

2003 will be marked by the emergence of three brand new enterprise desktop offerings. Red Hat has plans to release the desktop equivalent of its successful Red Hat Advanced Server; SuSE is readying an enterprise client distribution called SuSE Enterprise Desktop; and the release of Sun’s Mad Hatter enterprise Linux desktop is expected around the same time.

To a certain extent, the interest in the enterprise desktop has taken distribution vendors by surprise. Red Hat executives, for example, were downplaying the potential of the Linux desktop as recently as last year. And, according to SuSE Vice President of Marketing Rafael Laguna, the initial plan for its SuSE Office Desktop distribution was to serve small shops — companies in the 25-employee range. But now, he says, “We get customers in our face saying ‘Why can’t we use it on a larger scale?’”

Over the last few years, it seems, Linux’s chances on the desktop have changed along with the economics in information technology. While run-away IT spending may have been the norm in the late ’90s, that’s no longer the case. “The departments used to have all the power in the 1990s,” says Sun Microsystems Desktop Solutions Product Manager Kevin Strohmeyer. But, he adds, the economic downturn has changed things. “Today, it’s almost the reverse. The IT department has complete power to figure out how to reduce costs.”

And those costs are not simply hardware and software license costs, which make up a small minority of the total cost of ownership of desktop systems. Expenses also include the cost of deploying systems and keeping them up and running. Whether Linux, with its vaunted reliability, but less well-established portfolio of desktop applications can truly compete with Windows on the corporate desktop remains to be seen.

But customers are now beginning to at least evaluate this question. Last August, Australian telecommunications giant Telstra caused a major stir when CIO John Pittard revealed that his company was considering Linux combined with Sun’s StarOffice desktop application suite as a replacement for Windows and Office on its 45,000 corporate desktops. Telstra has not yet announced whether it actually plans the switch to the penguin, but a desktop conversion the size of Telstra would be a major validation of Linux as a corporate desktop.

This is exactly the kind of customer win that Sun is now pursuing. While Sun has not had much success as a vendor of enterprise client products, it does have enough credibility as an enterprise vendor to catch the attention of the likes of Telstra. And Sun has deliberately charted a different course from its rivals — Dell, IBM, and HP — by branding its own Linux distribution, Sun Linux, and deliberately targeting the desktop.

“I think there’s a sleeper in our midst and it’s Sun Microsystems,” says Linux advocate Bruce Perens. “Sun knows what to do to satisfy their customers,” he says. And, he adds, after years of watching its technical workstation sales be eroded by low-cost Intel machines, Sun may finally be ready to push back with a low-cost Linux machine of its own.

Telstra is not alone in its curiosity. SuSE says the German financial services company Debeka has begun installing Linux on its 3,000 workstations, and insurance company Stuttgarter Lebensversicherung is in the process of converting 1,000 desktops to Linux.

And while the question of whether Linux, Mozilla, Evolution, and StarOffice comprise an adequate replacement suite for Windows, Internet Explorer, Outlook, and Microsoft Office remains hotly debated, there seems to be little debate that Linux is making headway as a client replacement for enterprises that are not dependent on the Microsoft application portfolio. One by one, vertical applications in industries like transportation, retail, health care, digital video, and mining — once the domain of a hodge podge of proprietary operating systems — are being ported to Linux.

“You could make the case that Linux is cannibalizing the low-end of the Unix market,” says IDC’s Dan Kuznetsky, who believes that Microsoft compatibility — particularly compatibility with the latest versions of Microsoft products — and Microsoft’s iron-fisted control of the channels of distribution will keep Linux from competing directly with Windows on the desktop. However, he adds, “I think it’s quite possible that Linux [could be] packaged in such a way as to make it desirable as a platform for transaction workers.”

And that’s exactly what got companies like Sherwin Williams interested. The paint retailer is currently moving its nearly 10,000 in-store computers from SCO UnixWare to Linux — porting its paint tinting, color matching, point of sale, and inventory applications to the free OS. And other companies, Regal Entertainment Group, Burlington Coat Factory, and Industrial Light and Magic for example, have adopted Linux as a platform for their point of sale and high performance workstation applications.

IDC’s Kuznetsky says that Linux can only lose by trying to be a direct competitor to Windows and trying to clone or run Microsoft products with software like OpenOffice or Wine. He believes that this approach will leave Linux developers beholden to Microsoft and it’s unchecked ability to make undocumented changes to its applications or file formats. Of course, developers of the Wine Windows emulation software disagree. “Good Windows compatibility is absolutely necessary for Linux to succeed,” says Alexandre Julliard, leader of the Wine project. While Wine has a ways to go, Juliard adds, “We are very close to [running a subset] of the most popular applications like Office, Lotus Notes, and Quicken.”

Looking on the server side, one could cite the Samba project and its success at keeping pace with Microsoft’s SMB APIs as an example of how the open source community can succeed at this game.

Changing the Rules

But Kuznetsky says Linux cannot win at Microsoft’s own game. “This is a rather large problem to overcome,” he observes, “and the only way the Linux community can overcome it is to change the rules of the game.”

And the rules of the game are changing, even without Linux. Sales of PC desktops have slowed dramatically in the last few years, their growth transferred to new types of devices — PDAs, game consoles, even cell phones — many of which already run Linux.

In fact, the emerging networked device markets are particularly well suited to Linux, which has been widely ported and whose GPL software license encourages experimentation and new applications. The popular Tivo home recording system, for example, was built on Linux.

Microsoft is also changing the rules of its own game. Last year, it introduced its revised Licensing 6 software licensing scheme. Microsoft billed the plan as a way of consolidating its sometimes confusing licensing schemes and as a way to let clients defer the cost of software over a number of years. But there was a catch: its cost. If you wanted to take advantage of Microsoft’s steep volume discounts, you had to adopt Licensing 6. However, Licensing 6′s Software Assurance pricing is structured in such a way that customers are locked into paying just under one third the price of the software every year — so companies that typically upgrade their software every four years or more actually end up facing a significant price increase.

Licensing 6 was a major change for Christian Blessing, the technology coordinator at the Bisbee Unified School District in Bisbee, Arizona. “Licensing 6 has effectively ended the attractive volume pricing on Microsoft products,” he says. “We cannot afford to upgrade to each and every iteration.” As a result, Bisbee is deploying Linux and StarOffice in what Blessing calls a “deliberate and selective” integration plan.

For example, using software from the K-12 Linux project, he is re-using old PC hardware to set up a 16-computer, Linux-based humanities lab at one school, and also has eight stand-alone Linux desktops being used for “word processing and Internet-based research” at another. “I think Licensing 6 made a lot of Microsoft customers realize that they had a lot of eggs in one basket,” says Alvin Park, a research director with Gartner Group. “They realized that they were too dependent on Microsoft across the board for almost all the software that they used, and they realized that that was not a good position to be in for the future.” July 1, 2004 will be a particularly interesting day for Linux, Park says, as that’s when the last of Microsoft’s pre-Licensing 6 software agreements run out.

For schools and local government — with their tight IT budgets — Licensing 6 may just be the nudge they need to cut their ties to Microsoft. But the private sector is showing some interest as well. “I expect startups with limited funds will also start turning to Linux,” says Andrew Grygus, the owner of Automation Access, a small business system integrator based in La Crescenta, California. “Traditionally, they just stole a lot of Microsoft software, but that’s becoming both difficult and dangerous.”

A Clash of Cultures?

Ease of use and third party software remain major concerns. Christian Blessing says that the lack of education software has kept Linux out of his elementary school, and as for ease of use, he says, “When it takes me, a fairly competent user, two days at the command line trying to get a scanner working, one can imagine the difficulty in selling Linux to students, teachers and administrators.”

Many of the desktop ISV problems are familiar ones: ISVs are overwhelmed by the wide variety of Linux distributions and window managers and underwhelmed by Linux’s desktop marketshare, and groups like UnitedLinux and the Linux Standards Base have yet to fully address the standardization of the desktop.

Andrew Grygus believes that the cultural differences between the Linux and Windows development communities may be creating a barrier as well. “The problem is not the major software packages,” he says, “it’s minor programs for selling, planning, and communication that need attention. The main avenue for filling these needs is proprietary software. Open source programmers just aren’t interested in that stuff.”

Others are more blunt. “The community is relatively rabid, and they pretty much hate commercial companies,” says Shawn Gordon, president of theKompany.com, a commercial Linux tools company based in Rancho Santa Margarita, California. “We used to donate a lot more work to various projects. Now we barely ever do. They just bite our hand.”

The community is addressing some of these desktop issues. In March 2000, GNOME developer Havoc Pennington set up the freedesktop.org Web site and created what has become an important working forum where KDE and GNOME developers work out incompatibilities between their window managers. ISV’s have praised the effort for providing a single place where they can go to get Linux desktop issues resolved. “They’re doing some good work,” says Jermey White, CEO of Codeweavers, a Saint Paul, Minnesota-based seller of Windows-Linux interoperability software. “That’s the place I go when I want to complain about the new menu structure in GNOME.”

Linux desktop advocates are stepping up the marketing campaign as well. Earlier this year Lindows sponsored its first ever Linux Desktop Summit and a Desktop Linux Consortium was formed around the same time to market Linux as a desktop alternative to Windows.

And just last year, Lindows made what could be an important step in breaking Microsoft’s dominance of retailers by signing a deal with web site Wal-Mart.com to sell PCs with Linux pre-installed. Though brick-and-mortar Wal-Mart has yet to decide if it will sell the Linux machines in its retail outlets, the company is encouraged by its initial results, according to Wal-Mart.com Senior VP of Marketing & Strategy Carter Cast.

Fighting the Good Fight

In the end, Linux’s best chance for winning the desktop war may come from its relentlessness. Because of its open nature, Linux is constantly popping up in new and unexpected areas. It runs on virtually every hardware platform, and unlike the commercial world, when an open source company goes out of business, its code lives on. Eazel’s Nautilus file manager continues to be developed by the GNOME community, and while Loki Software may be out of business, its code remains alive on the Icculus.org web site. Even Corel — which sold its Linux business to Xandros — has made significant contributions to Wine (adding DDE and OLE support, for example).

“Even the failed companies contribute to the progress,” says Juilliard. He adds that though it “may well take another round of failures and new startups” before Linux makes it on the desktop, that day will come eventually.

Andrew Grygus agrees. “I think the Linux desktop is coming,” says Grygus, “but it’s going to be like ‘the Year of the LAN.’ Year after year, all of the computer magazines crowned that ‘this will be the year of the LAN,’ but the ‘Year of the LAN’ never came. Then one day people woke up and noticed that LANs were everywhere.”

Robert McMillan is Editor at Large for Linux Magazine. He can be reached at bob@linux-mag.com

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