Red Hat sees no consumer desktop Linux in its future

Company to focus on enterprise server and community versions

If you're waiting to see market-leading Linux vendor Red Hat Inc. release a desktop Linux operating system anytime soon to compete in the consumer market, then think again.

The Raleigh, N.C.-based company is ceding the admittedly small and nascent demand to other Linux vendors, including Ubuntu, according to a post yesterday on one of Red Hat's blogs.

"We have no plans to create a traditional desktop product for the consumer market in the foreseeable future," the company said in the blog report, titled "What's Going On With Red Hat Desktop Systems? An Update."

"As a public, for-profit company, Red Hat must create products and technologies with an eye on the bottom line, and with desktops this is much harder to do than with servers," the post continued. "The desktop market suffers from having one dominant vendor, and some people still perceive that today's Linux desktops simply don't provide a practical alternative.

"Of course, a growing number of technically savvy users and companies have discovered that today's Linux desktop is indeed a practical alternative," the post said. "Nevertheless, building a sustainable business around the Linux desktop is tough, and history is littered with example efforts that have either failed outright, are stalled or are run as charities."

Instead, the company said, it will continue to focus its attention on its Red Hat Enterprise Linux Desktop edition, which is compatible with its Linux server operating systems; its open-source, community-supported and free Fedora Linux operating system; and its delayed but still-under-development Red Hat Global Desktop edition that's designed for small, reseller-supplied deployments in emerging markets.

A company spokesman declined to comment on the blog post today.

Red Hat's decision to stay out of the consumer market is not a surprise, said several industry analysts.

"One key word here is 'consumer' desktop," said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H. "They do have Red Hat Enterprise Linux desktop, so for enterprises, they do have a desktop product. They [also] have Fedora, so for a consumer who doesn't want to pay for a desktop operating system on their computer, they can always load up Fedora" for free, which has the most-needed consumer features and can be loaded with add-on video and music players as needed.

The need to include such players could be one of the reasons that the company is shying away from offering a consumer version, he said. "Red Hat's approach has always been pure open-source, so the need to have some proprietary codecs and things like that to round out a consumer desktop version, that's not really Red Hat's philosophy anyway."

In the end, Haff said, it comes down to economics and revenue. "How many consumers are going to pay for a desktop Linux for their home?" he asked. "Very few. It's not like the consumer desktop market is very big anyway, and then you take the group that's willing to pay for it, that's a tiny, tiny slice indeed."

"My take here is that Red Hat has Fedora, and that home users can perfectly well run Fedora," Haff said. "I guess this is generating a little buzz that Red Hat isn't creating a consumer desktop. But they never have. This isn't really changing anything."

Dana Gardner, an analyst at Gilford, N.H.-based Interarbor Solutions LLC, agreed. "It's not compatible with their business, and it's not going to make them any significant dough," Gardner said.

Other recent developments in the fledgling desktop-as-a-service marketplace could also be playing a part in Red Hat's strategy, Gardner said. In that marketplace, vendors including Desktone, MokaFive and Citrix are building systems that allow multiple users to work from one instance of an operating system, reducing the number of operating system licenses that are needed, which lowers revenue for operating system vendors.

"What they're doing is kind of turning the economics [around]," he said. "The timing and the economics have shifted. This makes perfect sense."

The Red Hat announcement is a bit ironic because it comes less than a week before Ubuntu is unveiling the 8.04 editions of its free consumer desktop and enterprise server operating systems on Monday. Ubuntu gains revenue by selling support for its operating systems through its commercial sponsor, Canonical Ltd.

Ubuntu has had some modest success with a sales effort by computer maker Dell Inc. that includes desktop Ubuntu Linux offered on a select number of Dell machines.

The Red Hat announcement also comes the same week that Curl Inc., which builds software to create rich internet application (RIA) features for Web sites, debuted its installer that now supports Ubuntu Linux on the desktop. The new Curl 6.0 installer will allow Ubuntu desktop users to see RIA-rendered code on their machines. Curl added the installer in part because of growing customer demand for desktop Ubuntu support, the company said.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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