I love Linux. I write about it frequently, but ask me to install it and use it in anger and I would be as lost as Jeremy Clarkson on a pair of roller blades.
Last year, Linux finally became respectable. And now, flushed with ambition and support from some of the largest names in the business, it's in real danger of becoming the universal answer to everything that isn't Microsoft.
That's not such a bad thing, until you realise that a great many of us, thousands of small businesses throughout the land, still buy our hardware and software from high-street stores. The very thought of having a sensible conversation about the merits of Linux makes me break out in a cold sweat.
So, once more, I'll climb wearily back into my pulpit: Linux is great, but it's probably not yet ready for you. It's cheap, reliable, mostly secure and yes, it's as dull as dishwater to anyone who doesn't own a wispy beard and a pair of comfy slippers. And one more thing; its principal champion these days is IBM; the Ford Motor Company of the computer world, hell-bent on giving us Linux with all the sex appeal of a Mondeo.
There you have it. Linux now wears a shirt and tie and is, dare I say it, respectable. But even IBM has yet to find a really clever way of comfortably squeezing the Linux Penguin into a dark blue suit. Rest assured though that IBM is working hard at the problem and, to Microsoft's horror, Linux is starting to chip away at the edges of its very lucrative server market.
On the desktop of course, Microsoft remains in charge. You see, Linux, aside from being a rather good operating system, represents for many, a lifestyle choice. It's a quiet protest in an increasingly anodyne world, dominated by a single software supergiant where clever packaging invariably wins over more sentimental principles of open-source computing.
Linux on the client side just isn't going to happen outside of niche areas, such as education. The same is true for the smaller enterprise customer, outside those who dabble with an Apache web server. There's too much pain involved making the thing work.
The future for Linux lies increasingly with the evolution of server blades and so-called "Server Appliances". At the end of last year, I warned that the threatened skills crisis facing the industry makes server appliances as much of inevitability as the steady growth of the open-source software movement and the arrival of increasingly cheaper hardware.
As everyone races to join the global networked economy, the demand for component-style simplicity and lower TCO (total cost of ownership) will continue to drive the industry towards more unsophisticated single-purpose server-appliances. This remains an important part of IBM's own game plan, to catch the next wave of server consolidation for print, file and Web serving by providing Linux-only configurations for its mainframes and midrange servers that carry a lower price tag than the plain vanilla zSeries or iSeries machines without Linux.
The company claims that 11% of the mainframe processing power that was shipped in the fourth quarter of 2001 were dedicated to supporting Linux workloads, so there's no doubt that Linux now has its foot firmly wedged in the door.
Unfortunately, in the industry in which we live and work, as adjectives, cheap and sexy are mutually exclusive. The new Apple iMAC is sexy but not cheap, and I have yet to come across a cheap and sexy Linux server appliance. Companies are choosing to evaluate Linux because Linux can save them money, as in the case of one Canadian insurance giant that reportedly saved $20 million by rolling a single Linux portal solution out through its 14 subsidiaries.
If Linux offers us a technology argument, it's also very much a TCO argument. Businesses are realising that computing costs are increasingly unsustainable at present levels. Sexy computing is too expensive in the prevailing economic climate and cheap computing has an attractive ring to it. What interests business now is the "install and forget" appliance server, the application being powerful and the underlying operating system invisible.
The argument, in fact, is moving beyond whether Linux will ever be as good as Solaris or Windows 2000 to a question of how cheaply and reliably an application can run on a Linux box as opposed to some other proprietary OS. But, until you can walk into PC World and walk out with a Linux server-appliance to plug seamlessly into your network, Linux is going to remain firmly in its niche, still not quite powerful enough to win the enterprise server battle and too intimidating a prospect for most small businesses to consider.
Zentelligence: Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and ramblings of the futurist writer, broadcaster and Computer Weekly columnist Simon Moores.
This was first published in March 2002