2006, the year for Linux on the desktop?

IT experts have predicted the eminence of desktop Linux for over 15 years. It may be that this is the year it fulfils its promises

If only press column inches were directly related to market share and revenue.

If this was the case, then the makers of Linux would now be very rich people. Since the late 1990s, people have been forecasting that this will be the year of desktop Linux, but this very much yet to be the case.

Despite an almost daily avalanche of IT press stories and predictions as to when it would conquer the world, Linux shipments still only really account for around a 20th of all IT shipments.

As Mark Twain would perhaps have said if computers had existed in his time: The demise of Windows is greatly exaggerated. And even though there is a lot of willingness for Linux to succeed, it may be that on the desktop it will never gain critical mass. Or will it?

Maybe people are looking at the wrong things, suggests Gary Barnett, research director at Ovum. “People keep asking ‘is Linux ready for the desktop?’ and it is ready, of course, but it’s the wrong question. The right one would be ‘is the desktop ready for Linux?’ This is because for mainstream users, there has to be a very big motivation to completely change the world they’re used to and that they’re surprisingly happy with.”

It is still early days for the OS adds Eddie Bleasdale, director of open source-based IT services provider netproject: “Change is something IT managers abhor because they’ve spent a huge amount of time and effort building systems. So they aren’t going to just going to replace Microsoft with something else – it has to be something that is orders of magnitude better and will provide huge benefits. That’s why take-up has been slower than we’d hoped, but people have been working to improve the software and it’s now at a point where it’s very good.”

As a result, Bleasdale believes that desktop Linux now offers two key advantages over its rival. The first relates to security.

Received wisdom suggests that one of the key issues for those thinking of making the shift is a belief that there are inherent security vulnerabilities in the Windows operating system that represent a significant risk to their business. On the contrary, Linux is attributed with being inherently more secure and, therefore, representing a lower risk.

Moreover, continues the belief, even those who believe they can secure Windows to an adequate extent have the cost and overhead of continually having to apply security updates to keep the exposure to a minimum, in addition to the time and money that has to be spent deploying and managing third party security offerings such as anti-virus software. Linux also tends to run in thin-client mode on machines or appliances where it is easy to lock down.

“This results in very low cost of ownership. The main reductions come from the low cost of administration and looking after the systems. Also there’s a lack of components going wrong, but if they do, they’re easy to repair and fix,” Bleasdale says.

A survey from Quocirca—based on feedback from 8,128 IT professionals who responded to an online questionnaire in 2005— supports these views. “Windows is perceived to be a problem by a significant number,” the report says. Others, to quote a couple of respondents directly, are unhappy that “each new version of Windows is heavier on system resources and forces a hardware upgrade”, while “Linux gives you higher performance on equal hardware”.

But to make matters even worse for Microsoft advocates, there is also a widespread perception, especially among smaller businesses, that the complexity of the software vendor’s licensing policies are making cost management trickier than it needs to be. Those in the desktop Linux camp have found that “switching can dramatically simplify, reduce or even remove licence-cost related issues”.

So with this in mind, the key question then becomes who has made the move, or intends to make the move, to Linux on the desktop and to what end?

Of the IT professionals questioned by Quocirca, 22% indicated that they are either reviewing or are likely to review whether to migrate over the next year or so; a further 18% saying that they are either likely to standardise on desktop Linux or have already done so.

While Clive Longbottom, a service director at the research company points out that respondents are likely to comprise a “self-selecting sample” with high probable interest in Linux anyway, he does acknowledge that the numbers of people experimenting with the OS are surprisingly large – although many of pilot projects now appear to have hit hurdles and are grinding to a halt.

As to where interest in desktop Linux has centred to date, meanwhile, Barnett indicates that it is mainly larger companies that have grasped the nettle, but again only for specific job functions. These include warehouse staff, call centre agents and workers in remote or branch offices, for example, in cost-sensitive industries such as banks or retail outlets.

Other sectors that see the appeal of being able to lock down their systems easily, often don’t require big personal productivity applications or use a lot of custom-built ones include schools, healthcare and the public sector, although in the latter instance, he points out: “There’s been a lot of talk, but not much action.”

“There are definitely very clear areas where Linux is useful on the desktop, which is mainly kiosks and single function applications. For example, if you’re working in a call centre and are only using a terminal emulator and web browser hooked up to a server, you don’t need Microsoft Office so it’s perfect,” Barnett says.

Mark Blowers, a senior research analyst at Butler Group, agrees. “It’s not for power powers, but it is suitable for those logging on to email and writing the odd letter now and then. Desktop Linux is gathering momentum. We’re not at the point where everyone is thinking about using it, but there’s a definite move to raise questions and say ‘why not take a look?’”

Moreover, says Chris Ingle, group consultant for IDC’s systems practice, for many organisations, desktop Linux has become a licensing negotiation tool and this is only likely to increase as they look at alternatives before deciding whether to upgrade to Microsoft’s next big Windows release in the shape of Vista, formerly known as Longhorn.

“The issue of Linux on the desktop is one thing, but the future of the desktop is quite another. It’s about how you enable people to access the resources they want to use in the most convenient way,” Ingle explains. “There are so many complexities beyond whether Linux is suitable or not and they relate to how can companies can best use a range of options and devices to access services”.

Another dose of reality is the lack of availability of commonly used commercial applications in the area of applications, the most significant area, according to the Quocirca study.

 “Linux on the server has been used for a long time and is relatively mature in hardware and application support terms, but Linux on the client side has not had the same weight of backing from the major IT vendors,” Clive Longbottom reveals. “Time and again, research shows that the major technical hurdle for desktop Linux is applications. Although there are masses of small-time desktop ones, most just aren’t compatible with their Windows equivalents.”

There are also challenges to be considered when migrating any bespoke Windows applications such as Excel spreadsheets with macros or Access-based systems, which can be an expensive and challenging prospect.

Moreover, while open source alternatives to Microsoft’s Office personal productivity suite such as OpenOffice are “on the whole, functionally equivalent”, according to the Quocirca study, they do nevertheless lack some of the more advanced features such as support for macros.

But this already tricky situation is made even more problematic by the fact that you can expect the occasional document exchange problem with Microsoft Office users. What ever you think of Windows, you are going to have to communicate with it some time.

Interaction with Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes is likewise only possible by deploying third party utilities such as CodeWeaver’s CrossOver Office, which layers a Windows runtime environment on top of the Linux OS.

Elsewhere, you are also likely to come up against challenges with user acceptance. The vast majority of your company will almost certainly not be familiar with the Windows interface. In this regard, any functional advantages of Linux could be rendered as irrelevant.

As a result, for any desktop Linux project to succeed, it must be backed up by a suitable training and support programme, which, while providing opportunities for the channel, also increases migration costs and can put customers off.

Longbottom explains: “The current big blocker at a business level is the switching and immediate support costs and the balance has not tipped there yet. You can easily get into a situation where customers save money on direct IT and maintenance costs, but they spend more on migration, particularly on end-user and technical support training.”

This means that any sell here will rely on a high level of consultancy and being able to build a “rock solid business case” that can demonstrate that the value to be gained from making the move is overwhelming.

“It’s about looking at the risk/cost/benefit equation and working out if the level of hassle and the migration costs balance out. The question that has to be asked on the customer’s behalf is will it be worth it at the end of the day?” concludes Longbottom.

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