Long Odds on the Linux Desktop

I like the Linux desktop. Let me explain further. I love the Linux desktop. When I got started in this business, the big interface debate was not between GNOME and KDE -- it was between Bourne shell and C shell. My personal favorite, Korn, hadn't even been born yet. You probably have your own pick. Unfortunately, no matter what we want, the market does not care. In fact, for most commercial purposes, the Linux desktop is dead.

Shutdown

I like the Linux desktop. Let me explain further. I love the Linux desktop. When I got started in this business, the big interface debate was not between GNOME and KDE — it was between Bourne shell and C shell. My personal favorite, Korn, hadn’t even been born yet. You probably have your own pick. Unfortunately, no matter what we want, the market does not care. In fact, for most commercial purposes, the Linux desktop is dead.

Let’s face facts, shall we? Yes, Linux is technically better and more stable than the competition — period, end of statement. Sadly, it doesn’t matter. Few corporations are switching from Windows — or anything else for that matter — to a Linux desktop.

Over on Slashdot, the ever-popular technical discussion site, one of the topics on October 1, 2001 was, “Where is the largest Linux desktop install?” People quickly listed a few businesses where perhaps a couple of thousand desks made the switch over. However, it soon became clear that a lot of these sites weren’t really Linux desktop PCs; they were actually just point of sale systems (Home Depot) or dedicated special-purpose terminals (Korean Air and Southwestern Bell). Yes, Linux was the engine, but only an expert user looking for the operating system would ever know if it was IBM MVS or Red Hat Linux back on the server.

It soon became apparent that only a handful of businesses have actually switched to a real Linux desktop. And, I don’t know about you, but if someone trots out the ancient example of Burlington Coat Factory again, I’m going to scream. One major firm switching to Linux over two years ago doesn’t make a trend.

Why is this? It’s not that KDE and GNOME aren’t great — they are. You’re not going to get KDE 2.2.1 off my main machine until the next upgrade. And, general-purpose applications, thanks to StarOffice and the WordPerfect Suite, have been available for years now, so the old, “but there are no good applications” argument doesn’t hold water. So what’s the real story?

It’s not the fact that there are too many choices. I think that was always a red-herring issue. At the moment, you have four broadly available choices of Microsoft operating systems — 98SE, ME, W2K, and XP for the desktop. Microsoft’s not hurting.

The real dirt is that IT departments are conservative. The current generation grew up with Microsoft Windows and they’re not going to switch unless they absolutely have to. And folks, screaming at them about technical superiority and the evils of Microsoft isn’t going to make them switch.

The only things I can think of that would make them shift over is a complete collapse of Windows security (a Code Red worm that wipes disks as clean as that ancient asteroid wiped the earth of dinosaurs) or license agreements that are so painful that the CFOs force their companies to move to a less expensive operating system. And who knows; the Outlook Transmitted Diseases (OTD) are getting worse and worse, and Microsoft’s licensing has become expensive enough that some businesses are seriously looking into a Linux alternative.

Security concerns may also finally push people into taking a look at Linux desktops. Netproject, a U.K.-based group working on vendor-neutral persuasive computing technology, has recently turned their attention to what they’re calling the Secure Open Desktop Project. This is an effort to help companies switch over to Linux desktops based on Open Office from Sun, GNOME Evolution (an Outlook replacement), and VMware for legacy Windows application support.

But you know what? I really don’t think that is enough. I look at the operating systems people I know used five years ago, and I look at what they are using now. You guessed it: the Windows people are still using Windows; the Mac people haven’t given up their Macs; and the programmers are still using some flavor of Unix.

It’s not just IT. It’s people. We tend to stick with the devil we know rather than the one we don’t. Thus, I think the only way Linux is ever likely to develop a real end-user base is to reach people when they’re young. We need Linux in schools, not more GNOME/ KDE flame wars.

For now, though, unless Microsoft blows it, the Linux desktop as a commercial venture is dead. Corel couldn’t do it. Eazel couldn’t get funding and went under. If you want to make a living at Linux, your immediate future is on the server. On the desktop, despite everything we’ve accomplished, we never really had a chance.



Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols is a longtime Unix guru and technology writer. He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

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