Linux Aims For The Desktop

Security and pricing concerns are causing companies to consider alternatives to Windows, but adoption of the open-source operating system has been slow.

September 14, 2004

7 Min Read
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Linux software has found lots of friends in IT departments and research labs that like its low price, flexibility, and crash-proof reputation. Now tech companies such as Novell, Red Hat, and Sun Microsystems are beginning to market those same virtues on the computer desktop, where Microsoft's Windows has a virtual lock on sales. There's an open window of opportunity, but few customers seem to have noticed the breeze.

Additional charges for upgrades, a monthly march of security patches, and technical changes to the next-generation Longhorn version of Windows have left Microsoft perhaps vulnerable to giving away some of its desktop dominance. "Security issues, pricing concerns, and licensing flexibility are driving companies, as well as individual users, to consider desktop alternatives," Geoffrey Mogilner, an analyst with Decatur Jones Equity Partners, writes in an E-mail.

To capitalize on this, Linux distributor Red Hat this spring came out with a desktop-productivity suite that runs on Linux, and the company plans to update it with more security features next year. Novell, which in the past year has acquired SuSE Linux AG and Linux desktop software maker Ximian Inc., is planning its own PC Linux launch by the end of the year. Sun Microsystems has been selling a suite of open-source desktop software to companies for $100 per user and earlier this year won a contract with Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to sell Linux-based home computers on its E-commerce site. Smaller companies such as Linspire Inc.--the new name Lindows chose after Microsoft sued it--and Turbolinux Inc. also target PC users seeking a Microsoft alternative.

"The biggest challenge is helping people understand that they have a choice on the desktop," says Mike Ferris, a Red Hat marketing manager.

Red Hat and Novell say Linux's heritage in the data center, coupled with the open-source community's development of a "security-enhanced" version of Linux, could give the operating system an edge when it comes to keeping PCs safe from viruses and other maladies that have plagued Windows users. Other vendors, most notably Sun, see Linux as a reliable, Unix-derived operating system that can run everything from the back office to the desktop.According to market researcher IDC, Windows accounted for about 94% of PC operating-system sales in 2002, the last year for which data is available. Linux accounted for 2.8% of sales, and Apple Computer's Mac OS held 2.9% of the market. By 2006, IDC projects Linux will double its share.

That's still small potatoes, though. What desktop Linux lacks is Windows' brand-name trust, familiar controls, and compatibility with the spectrum of files and desktop software PC users rely on every day. Ease of use is one sticking point. "Linux will never make a big dent in the desktop market unless it's user friendly," says Maj. Ron Dodge, IT director at West Point U.S. Military Academy, where Windows rules on PCs and servers.

Then there's the cost of switching from Windows. There's little doubt Linux is cheaper to buy. Hewlett-Packard last month introduced its first Linux notebook packed with an open-source productivity suite, rewritable CD drive, DVD player, and wireless networking for $1,450. The same model running Windows XP Professional is priced at $50 more. But Linux isn't free. Red Hat's Desktop package, for example, starts at $2,500 for a "starter pack" that includes support for 10 users, a month of phone support, and a year of online tech support.

"The cost of ripping Windows out is too high," says Jeryl Wolfe, CIO and VP at McCormick & Co., a $2.3 billion-a-year maker of kitchen spices and other condiments. "Replacing Windows with Linux on the desktop is too big of a change for our user community."

At Emcor Group Inc., which builds and maintains industrial electrical, telecom, and plumbing systems and had $4.5 billion in sales last year, CIO Joseph Puglisi relies on time-tested Windows to ensure that he can manage the 5,000 PCs used across Emcor's thousands of worldwide construction and engineering sites."If you're a large IT shop or have a large IT staff, you can move to Linux and cut your costs," he says. "We have little IT support at the company level, and it's very difficult in that type of environment to introduce any kind of change. A move to Linux on the desktop would be a radical change."

Microsoft, unwilling to lose customers in emerging markets who hope to save money by moving to Linux, in August introduced Windows XP Starter Edition, a low-priced version of Windows that it will sell in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Microsoft won't say how much Starter Edition is priced at, but it's less than Windows XP Professional, whose license fee in the United States runs up to $300 per desktop.

All of this will likely relegate desktop Linux to niche areas for the foreseeable future, says Bill Claybrook, president of New River Marketing Research. That includes design and engineering, where tech-savvy users never learned to rely on Windows.

Still, there's an opportunity for Linux to capture share, he says. It's not exactly clear when Windows Longhorn will arrive or what it will include. Microsoft last month said it would scale back key technology promised for Longhorn called the Windows File System, which was supposed to make it easier for PC users to search for files without burrowing through stacks of folders, in order to ship the product by 2006.

"No one is sure when Longhorn will be available, and when it is, it will be totally different than what's available today," Claybrook says. Longhorn also is expected to have a higher price tag than Windows XP and to take up a larger chunk of memory.But perhaps the most important reason Linux hasn't taken off on the desktop, Claybrook says, is that systems vendors and software companies haven't "put their heart into capturing market share."

Linux grew up in computer centers used to serving up Web pages and performing other behind-the-scenes chores. It also has gained a foothold in the servers and technical workstations used by scientists and engineers. One big reason for that is that Linux resembles a free, sharable version of Unix, which techies and academics have known and loved for years. Also, porting Unix software to run on Linux has been relatively easy. But there's little Unix to replace in the market for desktop PCs, and everyday users don't have as much tolerance for the ins and outs of Unix. "All of the companies that have deployed Linux on servers are wondering if they can apply the cost savings to the desktop," says Jeffrey Wade, HP's manager of Linux marketing communications.

HP sold $2.5 billion worth of Linux-based computers last year and unloads 400,000 desktop PCs preloaded with Linux each quarter, mostly in Asia. Still, Wade says he doesn't believe Linux will account for more than 3% of desktop operating system sales anytime soon. The company isn't even marketing its new Linux notebook.

Dell's approach is similar. The No. 1 PC maker offers Red Hat Linux preinstalled on workstations and servers, but not on PCs. Companies can specially order a PC with Linux. But "desktop Linux is still not shipping in high enough volume to be a factor for Dell," a spokeswoman says.

IBM, which has been one of enterprise Linux's greatest champions, also isn't convinced of its potential on PCs, though it does see a market for Linux on more-robust workstations used by designers in the automotive and life-sciences industries.In June, IBM teamed with Intel to launch a sort of Linux notebook on steroids that IBM calls a "mobile workstation." A pilot program with Intel, National Semiconductor, and IBM Microelectronics targets electrical engineers who traditionally have used desk-bound Unix boxes. The souped-up ThinkPads sport Intel's Centrino processor and chipset, and run Cadence Design Systems Inc. software.

The responsibility for adoption falls squarely on the shoulders of the Linux vendor community, says West Point's Dodge. "The open-source community isn't getting paid to improve Linux's desktop interface."

In other words, if Novell, Red Hat, and others want to grab market share away from Microsoft, they've got to do a better job of making the case for PC Linux.

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