Linux Still Doesn't Make It on Desktop

Back in the mid-90s, my research focused on desktop operating systems. There was a plethora of options for IT organizations, with Mac OS, Windows in the guise of NT and 95, and OS/2 Warp all vying for the attention of IT managers. Even Unix workstation vendors had thoughts of moving beyond scientific and engineering applications to mainstream knowledge worker desktops.

But by the late 90s, it felt as if I was doing the color commentary for a horse race whose leader was out in front by 10 furlongs. Still, while it was clear to many that Microsoft was going to dominate the desktop, that didnt stop some in IT from looking for alternatives.

Then a dark horse emerged. Many people now believe that Linux represents a viable alternative. Today, with mainstream hardware vendors like Dell offering Linux installations and some folks thinking a major shift is about to happen, its time to take another look at Linux on the desktop.

Unfortunately, despite major strides in recent years notably the Ubuntu release Linux still isnt viable for most end users or organizations.

Take a look, for example, at the Dell offering. When it was first announced, I asked company officials whether it was a mainstream product with full support. No, they said. The Linux machines were meant for enthusiasts who wanted a no Windows option. Users would still have to pay for the operating system about $50 less than Windows, which was hardly a major savings and significant features would be missing because of a lack of driver support.

In short, even though Linux has come a long way in the past few years, it hasnt come far enough. The latest and greatest hardware still arrives without Linux driver support. Until a vendor is willing to take a gamble and build fully optimized Linux systems, most IT shops simply wont bother to make the costly transition.

And cost is the hidden factor. While much is made of Linuxs being free, the truth is that software costs account for only about 10% of total cost of ownership for PCs.

Finally, theres the lack of critical application support. Most notable for businesses is the lack of support for Microsoft Office. Yes, there are office suites available for Linux, but the reality is that most organizations are dependent on Microsofts applications. Anything with less than 100% interoperability and compatibility isnt going to make it in the business world. And does anyone believe that Microsoft will ship a Linux version of Office anytime soon? Or ever?

And its not just business users who are affected. Sorry, consumers, but theres no version of iTunes for Linux.

So, the search for an alternative to Microsoft on the desktop continues. The fact that a mainstream hardware vendor like Dell is willing to make a Linux effort is laudable, but until such offerings enter the mainstream, well have a catch-22 situation in which vendors wait for users to adopt and users wait for vendors to deliver.

For now and the foreseeable future, its going to remain a Microsoft world. Linux still isnt the answer. And of course, there is always that other Unix-based operating system that has gained popularity over the past few years. Its called Mac OS X, and it comes from Apple.

Michael Gartenberg is vice president and research director for the personal technology and access and custom research groups at JupiterResearch in New York. Contact him at His weblog and RSS feed are at http://weblogs. analysts/gartenberg.

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