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Getting real about Linux on the desktop

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Reg Tech Panel Few topics in the IT industry are more contentious than the prospect of putting Linux on the corporate desktop. Opinions range from the religious view at one end, promoting a fundamentalist belief in open source as the saviour of mankind, to the reaction of corporate conservatives at the other, dismissing Linux as irrelevant to serious end user computing.

To date, the latter view has predominated, based largely on the assumption that migration of Windows user bases to Linux is generally more trouble than it’s worth. This has in turn perpetuated the significant inertia traditionally associated with the Microsoft dominated status quo.

Quite a bit has happened over the past couple of years, however, that arguably brings the desktop Linux discussion into more mainstream focus. Against the backdrop of initial goodwill from business users, Microsoft fumbled the ball quite badly with Vista, and while it soon to be releases successor Windows 7 is now being pretty well received, the whole experience has broken the Windows spell. For the first time, even the most loyal and accepting Microsoft shops have started to question the logic of simply moving automatically from one Windows version to the next.

We then have some interesting developments in the way applications are delivered to the desktop. With more and more interfaces to corporate systems and online services now being browser or RIA based, and the concept of virtualisation starting to bleed over from the server to the client side of the equation, the logic of the traditional ‘windowing fat client’ is being challenged in general.

It is ironic then that another pertinent development, namely the Mac chipping away at the edges of Windows estates, is actually a backwards step in architectural terms. The Mac desktop perpetuates the fat windowing client model of computing in an even more restrictive way by tying the operating system to the hardware and blocking any thoughts of an open virtual desktop approach. Nevertheless, the entry of Apple into the business mainstream (beyond its historical strongholds) represents another disruptive factor.

IT's the User, stupid

Lastly, we have the whole netbook phenomenon. While the jury might still be out on whether Microsoft or the Open Source camp have won the battle around smaller form factor devices, activity here has raised the visibility of client-side Linux and provided a lot of experience in how to package and roll out Linux-based offerings on a mass commercial basis. Indeed, there has been a lot more focus within the Linux community around issues such as usability and user acceptance, which is quite a departure from the traditional emphasis on perceived technical superiority.

So with all this going on and many in the Linux camp claiming a recession-friendly lowering in the total cost of ownership (TCO) of the desktop environment, has the time now come for businesses to consider a wholesale switch from Windows to Linux clients as the evangelists would advocate?

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