The view from LinuxWorld Expo

The view from LinuxWorld Expo

SAN FRANCISCO (02/06/2004) - I went to the LinuxWorld Expo show in New York last month determined to ask one question to anyone who'd speak with me: When is Linux on the desktop finally going to take off?

As I mentioned in my first column, I spent a few years predicting that widespread adoption of desktop Linux was right around the corner. How naive! And yet, as I've also pointed out in this space, most of the necessary pieces are already in place: Device support is pretty strong, user-friendliness has been addressed (and continues to improve), and solid applications that cover basic computing tasks (Web browsing, e-mail, office apps) are abundant. So is desktop Linux right around the corner now?

Everything I saw at the show tells me that the answer is ... yes and no. It all depends on whose desktop you're talking about. The Linux distributors at the show are all gearing up for a huge desktop push at the enterprise level. They're not even thinking about small business or home use yet. You and I are not on their radar.

Adam Jollans, manager of IBM Corp.'s worldwide Linux marketing strategy, explains it this way: The adoption of Linux in the server room happened in stages, and Linux on the desktop is going to blossom in the same fashion. Right now, the focus is in specialized fields -- what marketroids call "vertical markets" -- where Linux's benefits cannot be ignored.

Bright spots for Linux

So, for instance, you've got Linux fanning out amongst the wizards who create cinematic special effects. Linux doesn't just drive the render farms at studios like Pixar and Weta; it has also made its way to artists' desktops. With Linux, entertainment companies spend less on licensing, have more control over the guts of their systems, and can plow their savings into more boxes and tighter code. More boxes and tighter code mean better, faster rendering.

Jollans also points out that Linux is doing well in the marketplace for browser-based desktops (PCs that are limited to running programs through a browser), and in applications development. That latter trend is only going to increase as more and more universities worldwide rework their curriculums to take advantage of Linux's open nature. Why teach operating system development using a dummy, lab-only OS when you can instead have your students hack away on the code of a real one? Fewer and fewer schools are churning out grads who only know the Microsoft way of doing things. And the more bright young geeks capable of hacking on Linux, the faster the system will achieve the world domination that its creator, Linus Torvalds, has half-joked about for years.

In the immediate future, Jollans expects to see Linux conquer two new territories: the enterprise and government.

On one hand, enterprise desktops are a slam dunk because, by and large, they are standardized and require a few select applications. Imagine the hundreds of bean counters at IBM who all run the same bean-counting app and use the same client to read e-mail. Linux can easily meet these needs. There are all sorts of other good reasons to migrate: cost savings, ease of administration, better security, and so forth. Never mind the fact that people everywhere (remember, IT directors are people, too!) are fed up with Microsoft's costly licensing schemes and sometimes crummy support.

Governments, on the other hand, have different incentives for adopting Linux. Sure, cost savings is still important (hence the inroads Linux is making in education), but many government entities -- especially abroad -- have realized that if taxpayers are shelling out for a computing solution, it makes sense that they should control that solution as much as possible. The last thing a government agency wants is to set itself up with a system that it cannot fully control, or that requires writing a check to a third party every time a box hiccups. When a government adopts Open Source software, taxpayers get more for their money than off-the-shelf mainstream software that requires expensive upgrades every a few years. They get code that can be accessed and altered and updated. No third party controls what the people have paid for. The people aren't locked in.

Enough already: When will Linux ThinkPads arrive?

So Linux has vertical markets eating out of its hand; and it's poised to move into the enterprise and government realms, where there is a ton of money to be made by companies like IBM, Novell Inc., and Red Hat Inc. (Novell's embrace of Open Source is a fascinating 180-degree turn that may prove to be a blueprint for other proprietary software companies that find themselves fading into obscurity.) What does this mean for the prospects of Linux eventually making its way into your small business? Into your home? Onto your lap?

I think the pattern will be the same as it was for the PC itself. Personal computers arrived on desks in corporate workplaces first and spread virus-like from there. Home computer sales took off in part because folks began thinking, "Hmm, I'd like to take this Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet home and finish it off tonight." Microsoft Corp.'s Windows arrived in the home in part because folks began thinking, "Hmm, this new interface at the office sure is better than DOS. The family will dig this."

Similarly, I believe consumer adoption of Linux will increase once more people are exposed to the OS on a daily basis and have a positive experience with it. But you need a critical mass of people thinking, "Hmm, this Linux stuff works great at work; I think I want it at home as well" before you'll ever see the Dells and IBMs of the world offering Linux preinstalled on consumer boxes. As for how far out that day is, Jollans refuses to speculate.

He isn't the only one. I had a sit-down with Bruce Perens, one of the primary leaders of the Open Source movement. We talked a lot about his "Open Source State of the Union" speech, but I also asked him about desktop Linux and where it is headed.

Two of his pet projects, the Desktop Linux Consortium and UserLinux, are focused on pushing Linux onto more desktops, so I was a bit surprised to hear him say that a Linux box for your aunt-who-just-e-mails remains so far away it's not even worth speculating on a timeline. He largely agrees with Jollans that business opportunities have to drive Linux adoption -- and obviously there's a heck of a lot more money to be made selling Linux to corporations and governments than to aunts-who-just-e-mail.

That said, Perens has a different take on who can and should be making the money here. The UserLinux project is all about providing independent consultant-types with a standardized, supportable Linux so that they can go out into the world spreading the Free Software gospel, migrating the world to Linux one business at a time.

Grass-roots support

Since the launch of this column, I've received a surprising amount of e-mail from readers who want to know how to make the switch to Linux -- right now. In the February issue of PC World, we ran a feature called "The Linux Experiment" that has generated a flood of similar e-mail. As a longtime Open Source enthusiast who, admittedly, doesn't think very highly of Microsoft or its software, even I have been surprised by the level of anger and frustration our readers have with Windows. I'm also surprised by how many folks are ready to make the switch to Linux even if it means hitting some bumps in the road. So it's a bummer to attend LinuxWorld Expo and find that nobody at the show is much interested -- yet -- in serving consumers who want an alternative to Microsoft and aren't going to buy a Macintosh.

Happily, LinuxWorld Expo is a business-skewed view of the Linux universe. I've got plenty of consumer-oriented Linux goodies floating around my workspace, and will get back on track talking about some of them in my next column. Till then, stay as Free as you can, and please keep those e-mails rolling in.

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