Although Linux may be shipping on a growing number of PCs sold in the emerging markets of Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, about 80% of PCs shipped with the open-source operating system this year will eventually run pirated versions of Windows, industry research firm Gartner estimated.
The high price of Windows may be driving suppliers in countries such as China and Russia to ship Linux on as many as 40% of their PCs, but many of these systems will not ultimately run the free operating system, Gartner said.
In fact, this high percentage of Linux sales is being driven by the availability of cheap pirated copies of Windows rather than a desire to run Linux.
"The widespread availability of pirated versions of Windows at a fraction of the cost of a legal copy stimulates the growth of Linux on PCs in emerging markets, " wrote Gartner analyst Annette Jump in the report, entitled "Linux has a fight on its hands in emerging PC markets."
With the cost of the Windows operating system remaining "relatively constant", even as PC hardware components costs have dropped over the past 10 years, PC suppliers in the emerging markets are increasingly being driven to Linux in order to maintain their profit margins, Jump reported.
The cost of Windows in the Asia-Pacific region, for example, has increased from 6% of the total price of a professional desktop PC in 1996 to 15% in 2004, the report said.
Linux will ship on 5% of the 185 million PCs that are expected to be sold this year, but it will be particularly popular in the Asia/Pacific, Eastern Europe and Latin American regions, Gartner predicted.
The open-source operating system will be included with 9.8% of PCs shipped in Asia/Pacific, 11.2% in Eastern Europe, and 12.1% in Latin America.
In the US, Linux will ship on 0.8% of PCs this year, the research firm predicted.
Despite the fact that Windows will ultimately be run on the majority of emerging market desktops, even in those that ship with Linux, Microsoft's recent decision to begin pilot tests of a slimmed-down version of Windows XP, called Windows XP Starter Edition, is a sign that the company wants to cut down Linux's growth, according to Jump.
"Microsoft's plan to release a Windows XP Starter Edition in several countries in Asia/Pacific is a sign that the company has recognised the issue and is planning to fight for OS share in new PCs," Jump wrote.
"It is likely that Microsoft would prefer the initial OS on a new PC to be Windows rather than Linux, even if piracy were to continue," she wrote.
Microsoft's pilot programme will see XP Starter Edition shipping in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand next month. Early next year, the product will start shipping in Russia and India.
Microsoft has promoted the software as a low-cost option for first-time PC users, but analysts have criticised the software for not meeting the most basic needs of users. XP Starter Edition does not include support for home networking, sharing printers, or multiuser accounts.
Robert McMillan writes for IDG News Service