Opinion: Linux on the desktop: Still not happening

I'd love to see viable alternatives to the current mainstream operating systems. The PC market stands ready to be revolutionized by something new. But is Linux the agent of change that can do all of that? Not yet, I'm afraid.

Every few years I take a fresh look at the question of whether Linux can make it on the mainstream desktop (or laptop). For a while last year, things were looking up for Linux. Many of the early netbook vendors were forgoing Windows licenses and instead offering consumers machines that ran some form of Linux. That didn't last long, though. Return rates for Linux netbooks were much higher than for their Windows counterparts, and most netbooks today are sold with some version of Windows, not Linux.

What this means is that, though Linux is a great value for many server applications, it's still a non-starter on the desktop.

None of this is meant to suggest that Linux on a PC can't be done. It is possible, and more than a few people do it. Richard Stallman may not be typical, but you can read all about his setup here. It's not something that's going to win a lot of converts among the mass market of computer users, though. As he explains it, he uses a Lemote Yeelong, a netbook with a Loongson chip and a 9-inch display. "I spend most of my time using Emacs. I run it on a text console, so that I don't have to worry about accidentally touching the mouse-pad and moving the pointer, which would be a nuisance. I read and send mail with Emacs (mail is what I do most of the time). I switch to the X console when I need to do something graphical, such as look at an image or a PDF file. Most of the time I do not have an Internet connection. Once or twice or maybe three times a day I connect and transfer mail in and out."

Since most of us would go back to using paper, pens, envelopes and stamps before using the open-source text editor Emacs, it still seems likely that it's going to be a Windows and Mac OS world for the foreseeable future.

What about Android? you might wonder. Google has made it clear that Android is an operating system for phones, not other devices, and it has denied OEMs that are not building phones access to parts of Android's feature set, such as the Marketplace. Google's other Linux entrant, Chrome OS, made a big splash when it was announced, but so far it's vaporware. We'll have to wait until something actually gets released before anyone can say how well it might do as a mainstream operating system.

And I have my doubts. What Linux has lacked is an application compelling enough to be a reason to migrate from Windows or Mac OS. All of those netbook buyers who bailed on Linux demonstrate that the reverse is true: The compelling features and applications live on other platforms.

In my own case, Linux has given me no compelling reason to switch over from Windows 7 or Snow Leopard, and I can think of a lot of reasons to stay put. This remains true even as more and more of my applications migrate to the cloud. That change eliminates some of the advantages of a traditional operating system, but many of my applications are unlikely ever to escape the desktop, and that's probably true for most organizations.

What you're left with is the "Linux is free" argument, but "Linux is free" greatly exaggerates the case. The truth is that Linux doesn't significantly lower operational costs; it can't, because the cost of acquisition of a PC's operating system is usually less than 10% of the overall costs in the life of that computer.

Yes, we could use a revolutionary change in the PC market, and certainly the latest versions of Windows and Mac OS were far more evolutionary than revolutionary. Nonetheless, business customers are wise to heed the words of Damon Runyon when it comes to making their choice of an operating platform: "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet."

Michael Gartenberg is a partner at Altimeter Group. His weblog can be found at Gartenblog.net. Contact him at gartenberg AT gmail DOT com. The views expressed here are his own.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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