Could Linux become the dominant OS?
Comment Open source moves at a different speed to commercial software. This has become apparent over the last decade as Linux and its open source fellow travellers (Apache, Open Office, MySQL, Firefox ,et al) gradually established their position in the software world.
It may have been frustrating for the open source activists, more vocal than numerous, who had been hoping for more instant gratification than the software market delivered. Nevertheless, Linux and many of its associated open source products continued their forward march.
Figures from IDC, in May 2007, show Linux accounting for 12.7 per cent of the server market by revenue compared to Windows with 38.8 per cent of the market. Most of the remainder is Unix, although IBM mainframe still has a share.
However, these figures are for servers shipped from the major hardware vendors (HP, IBM, Sun, Dell, etc) and omit some important facts. In particular, the number of "constructed servers" is very large and they nearly all run Linux. How large? Well Google, for example, builds all its own servers and is estimated to be the fourth largest builder of servers in the world - after HP, IBM, and Sun. It's not the only ISP that does this, but its activity is so great that it distorts the market stats.
Linux probably doesn't trail Windows by much and it will almost certainly dominate in time. The determining factor is the emerging economies where Linux is growing at a much faster rate. Linux has two very important advantages for developing economies such as China, India, and Brazil:
- It can be used to establish a local software industry with local skills.
- The cost of adopting it is lower by far than any alternative.
If you examine the enthusiasm for Linux in these rising economies you quickly see that it is government led, with governments mandating Linux for their own IT needs. Bear in mind that in most countries government accounts for 10 per cent of the IT budget and the drive to Linux becomes clear.
The Microsoft threat and GPL 3.0
Microsoft, the main loser in the rise of Linux, has been doing what it can to derail it, most recently through vague legal threats to enforce patents against Linux distributors that it does not partner with.
The Linux community has responded by issuing a new Open Source License, GPL v3. This license binds all distributors of Linux to treat all other distributors equally in respect of patent protection. Thus, if you protect one distributor, as Microsoft has done with Linux distributors Novell, Inspire and Xandros, you agree to protect them all. Microsoft is thus forced either to drop its patent threats or cease to handle Open Source products such as Samba, the dominant Open Source file and print capability.
Microsoft's patent threats are, most likely, saber rattling with no intent of initiating legal action. The goal is probably to make corporate users of Linux feel a little uneasy. Microsoft must have watched the sorry course of SCO's legal action and can have little doubt that it would suffer a severe commercial backlash if it were foolish enough to take legal action against Linux.
Linux on the desktop, eventually
Linux has made least headway on the desktop for one obvious reason. It has no significant commercial backer on the desktop. The open source approach to software development usually produces products built by software developers for software developers. While Apple's OS X is making clear inroads into the Windows desktop monopoly, the Linux PC still languishes with minimal market share. The Mac OS X marketing slogan "it just works" is reasonably close to the truth. With the Linux PC the slogan could be "it's just for developers".
This situation changed a little with the advent of the Ubuntu distribution of Linux, which was much easier on the user, but not anything like as easy as OS X. Ubuntu is, nonetheless, the shape of Linux to come. Linux is being made easier as it gradually becomes the de facto educational software platform in developing countrie - stimulated to some degree by the Nicholas Negroponte's OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) initiative. Ultimately, this movement will establish a genuine low cost computing Linux PC market, but it will take time.
However, it could be accelerated by the success of Apple. The bigger Apple's success, the more PC manufacturers will want to control the PC OS and for that to happen either Microsoft will have to open Windows up or Linux will become a much better supported option.
The Linux bottom line
The trends suggest that Linux will become the dominant OS - the commodity OS - both for the PC and the server, to the eventual detriment of Microsoft's revenues.
However, there is nothing to suggest that it will become the only OS or that it will even become as dominant as Windows once was. The early PC market resembled the early mass market for cars; you can have any OS you want, as long as its Windows. The truth is that there can be multiple OSes but only one commodity OS, and Linux will eventually become that OS. The server OS market is different. Much of the strength of Windows in the server market is the apps (MS Exchange, MS SQL Server, particularly). Linux is fast becoming the commodity OS.
It is interesting to note that when discussing operating systems, few people refer to the dominance of Symbian on Smart phones where it has over 55 per cent of the market and both Windows (Mobile) and Linux are "also rans". With the advent of the iPhone the market will soon be split into four parts. Here too Linux can claim to be the commodity OS, even though it is far from having a 50 per cent share and may never even achieve that.
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