Where now for Linux in recession?

Dell's decision to stop bundling the Linux operating system with its desktop PCs and the cancellation of two Linux conferences...

Dell's decision to stop bundling the Linux operating system with its desktop PCs and the cancellation of two Linux conferences has raised the question of whether the Linux take-off is faltering, writes Daniel Thomas.

The open source operating system has been "the next big thing" for as long as your average 21-year-old programmer can remember. But, despite the hype, business use of Linux has not become widespread.

The recent Computer Weekly/National Computing Centre Survey of IT Decision Makers 2001 - based on responses from more than 1,200 IT user organisations - revealed that open source software such as Linux is in widespread use in fewer than 4% of UK organisations.

Linux has managed to capture a significant share of the server market, but its use has been largely restricted to static Web servers and mail servers. Furthermore, desktop use of Linux has been virtually non-existent. This is what led Dell to decide to stop bundling the operating system on its desktops and notebooks.

Dell has championed Linux through investments in companies such as Linux operating system provider Red Hat and Linux desktop software supplier Eazel, which recently went out of business. Last year, the company's chief executive Michael Dell remarked, "The only thing growing faster than Linux is Linux on Dell."

However, despite strong sales of Linux on workstations and servers, Dell said "a lack of demand for Linux on PCs" meant bundling the operating system on its desktops and notebooks was no longer viable.

"We started offering it a year ago in anticipation of spill-over demand from servers, but we have seen pretty flat demand," said a Dell spokeswoman. "We are still big supporters of Linux, but for desktops it is just not there."

Dan Kusnetzky, vice-president for system software at analyst firm IDC, said the lack of familiar applications is holding Linux back on the desktop. "The most popular personal productivity applications are not available for Linux even though other packages are available which basically do the same thing," he said. "So, a typical businessperson is not likely to be interested in Linux on their desktop."

In a further blow for the open source community, two Linux conferences were cancelled last week. Organisers of Linux Expo, due to be held in Birmingham, and Red Hat's Techworld conference in Brussels both blamed "the poor economic climate" for the decisions.

It is not all bad news for Linux, however. Servers and workstations based on Linux have registered strong sales, and companies such as IBM, Compaq and Hewlett-Packard continue to back the operating system strongly.

Earlier this year, IBM promised to spend £1bn backing Linux, while Compaq recently announced a series of measures to encourage the development of Linux applications for its servers and handheld devices.

Perhaps more significantly, Microsoft, which had previously remained tight-lipped on the issue, has begun to make statements about open source and Linux. Some industry observers believe this is a sign that the software giant is beginning to feel threatened.

In a newspaper interview, Microsoft's chief executive Steve Ballmer said companies that used open source to build applications would have to make whole programs open source. "Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches," he said.

Commenting on the article, Kusnetzky said, "Microsoft's remarks appear to be tinged with a bit of hysteria. Linux is just software. Microsoft is more concerned with the development and distribution model Linux represents because it undercuts Microsoft's business model."

Kusnetzky said Linux is still very much alive and kicking. IDC research found that Linux has 1.5% of the desktop operating environment and 27% of the server operating environment market. But these figures do not include free copies and replicas, and so are likely to be "very conservative".

Despite Microsoft's opposition, the Linux community can take heart from the fact that IBM, HP, Compaq and even Dell see opportunities in the growing market for Linux, he added.

Read more on Operating systems software