Experts: What Linux is doing wrong on the desktop

Blame overly vociferous advocates, a dearth of commercial software and reluctant PC makers

As the speakers at this week’s fourth annual Linux Desktop Summit in San Diego looked out onto their audiences, they couldn’t help but notice that the number of attendees sporting T-shirts, sandals and bushy facial hair -- the stereotypical Linux movement diehards -- was much reduced from previous conferences.

The message they offered the crowds echoed the longtime desire among Linux fans to see the open-source operating system loosen the stranglehold Windows enjoys on the desktop. But this time that message was leavened with criticism of the quixotic strategies Linux proponents and vendors still often rely on.

One of the biggest obstacles to acceptance of desktop Linux by corporate IT is the perception that proponents of the operating system are, well, troublemakers, according to Rob Enderle, principal analyst at San Jose-based The Enderle Group. “The closest thing you have to a union in IT are Apple users and Linux users,” he said. “Nobody else revolts like that.”

CIOs, for ease of management, generally prefer that employees all use the same operating system. The rule of thumb Enderle subscribes to is that support costs increase by the square of the number of platforms. So if a company runs two operating systems, support costs increase by a factor of four. If a company runs Windows, Mac and Linux, support costs increase nine times.

But whenever CIOs openly try to consolidate operating systems, they run into pockets of resistance from diehards who say “nasty things and threaten to quit.” Faced with that, most CIOs will simply try to limit the growth of Mac and Linux desktop systems “to maintain some respect and decorum, as well as keep their own jobs.”

IDC estimates that 9 million Linux PCs will be shipped this year, with that number growing to 17 million in 2008. While less than 4% of PCs expected to be sold in North and South America in 2008 will come with Linux, about 9% of those in the Asia-Pacific and the Europe, Middle East and Africa regions will have the operating system installed.

So why don’t PC vendors love Linux more, especially since Windows costs $200 to $300? That’s inaccurate, according to Enderle, who said that PC makers not only buy Windows for a fraction of the retail price, but they also get to recoup that cost later in the prices they charge for their products.

Indeed, Enderle said, large PC vendors actually turn a profit installing Windows because of all the money they are awarded by Microsoft from its marketing slush fund. Enderle says that the use of co-marketing dollars is a common practice in many industries, though chip maker Advanced Micro Devices Inc. is challenging their legality in a lawsuit aimed at Intel Corp.’s use of them. Still, Microsoft provides plenty of other soft incentives to hardware vendors, from sales support on large accounts, engineering assistance and essential support for making drivers for add-on peripherals work properly.

“It’s like crack, they just can’t get away from it,” Enderle said. “Are Linux vendors going to pick up the slack?”

OEMs, especially smaller ones, will occasionally install Linux if a customer demands it, Enderle said. But PC makers fundamentally dislike Linux because it doesn’t sport a track record of encouraging users to upgrade their computers in regular three-year cycles the way Windows does, Enderle said.

“The PC guys live on churn, and Linux doesn’t really change enough for them. That’s theoretically good for IT managers, who would keep employees on the same hardware for nine years if they could, but bad for OEMs,” Enderle said.

Another problem is the mistaken belief among Linux advocates that there's an adequate number of open-source equivalents to popular commercial Windows-based applications and games, according to Geoff Perlman, CEO of Austin-based Real Software Inc. “The mass majority of computer users are conservative. They want to use the software they’re used to using,” said Perlman, whose firm makes software to ease the rewriting of applications from one operating system to another.

Mainstream users just aren’t going to voluntarily switch to Linux if it means they have to give up Photoshop, Quicken or even Microsoft Office, said Perlman, who calls the current dearth of commercial software a “drought.”

Dave Rosenberg, principal analyst at Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) in Beaverton, Ore., agreed. “Does OpenOffice meet my needs? Almost. Does GIMP [ an open-source photo editor] meet my needs? Same answer,” said Rosenberg, who is also the CIO at San Francisco financial research firm, Glass, Lewis Inc. “Drivers are still a real drag. My laptop running Ubuntu only lasts half an hour. But these are solvable problems. So we’re getting there.”

Experts agreed that Linux advocates need to re-examine recent tech history in order to avoid being doomed to repeat it. For instance, Perlman argued that Windows only gained wide acceptance after Microsoft’s 1991 release of Visual Basic 1.0, its drag-and-drop software development tool that made coding Windows apps much easier. After that, “software titles for Windows began pouring down like rain,” he said.

Enderle, a former IBM employee, pointed to IBM’s experience with OS/2. Internal strife between IBM’s hardware and software divisions and a patronizing attitude toward customers caused top IBM executives to “cherry-pick” the tactics they could agree upon rather than embracing the overall strategy they “knew they needed to do to win with OS/2” against Windows. Linux, with its open-source community and multiple vendors, has it even worse, said Enderle.

OSDL’s Rosenberg argued that the release of Windows Vista will cause many corporations to seriously look into switching to Linux on the desktop, but Enderle disagreed. Linux’s best prospects, he said, are not on PCs, but with cell phones or newfangled consumer electronics appliances, such as the Linux-based Tivo.

“You can’t out-resource Microsoft or out-compete them,” Enderle said. “You need to find out where the market is going. As [Netscape founder] Jim Barksdale says, ‘Find a parade, and get in front of it.’”

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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