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Desktop Linux: the final frontier

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Depending on who you talk to, 40 to 75 per cent of the world’s web servers are Linux-based. That is some serious market penetration. But even in organisations running Linux on their servers the operating system is on just 20 per cent of desktops.

Despite its success in the back office, Linux has not yet made such an impact on the desktop. Does it matter?

Unsurprisingly, Chris Kenyon, Canonical’s vice-president of OEM services, thinks it does. And, he argues, in the form of Ubuntu at least Linux is making it on the desktop – “just in different locales and at different speeds”.

Nature v. inertia

“Showing very significant adoption on the devices that people use for everyday computing is important and is achievable,” he says.

Linux is increasingly part of the fabric of everyday life in organisations. There are no licence costs and it is inherently much more secure. So why isn’t it running on more machines?

A decade ago, it was because it wasn’t really ready as a consumer product. But according to Ovum analyst Laurent Lachal, Linux is now much more robust and user-friendly. The problem is accessing the market.

“Desktop Linux is stuck in a Catch-22 situation. To reach the market on a large scale, you need a good channel. And lack of channels is a big issue for Linux. The moment this is resolved, it has a fighting chance,” Lachal says.

Inertia has a lot to do with it. People like to use the operating system the machine is loaded with and early industry attempts to get Linux pre-installed on boxes didn’t work out too well.

Lure of the east

“Poor pre-installations of Linux on netbooks showed that putting Linux on brand new hardware in an ecosystem is a real engineering challenge. And one which, when done poorly, results in a bad experience for users,” Kenyon says.

He adds that the company has almost 30 engineers out in Taipei working on OEM relationships, training and partnerships with Dell, HP, Acer and Lenovo.

“The change over the last three years is staggering,” Kenyon says. “We will pre-load well over 10 million PCs with Ubuntu this year and we are more than doubling users every year in India and China.”

He rattles off a list of deployments: 10,000 PCs running Ubuntu at the University of Delhi, 5,000 desktops in the Tamil Nadu Health Services and 220,000 desktops in the state education system in Spain's Andalucia region.

Ubuntu is also making inroads into high-tech firms. Google, for instance, runs all its engineering and development on Ubuntu, and Texas Instruments and Qualcomm also use the platform for development work.

Futuristic vision

Desktop Linux at work may also be getting a boost from an unexpected quarter: the iPhone and all its emerging form-factor friends. Many of the large tech developers are using Ubuntu as their device development platform, even if they are targeting Android, Kenyon adds.

“The desktop of the future isn’t going to look like a desktop, or even a traditional clamshell. But Ubuntu is already on those convergence devices, like the Motorola Atrix.”

Lachal takes a more measured view, but concedes that the fragmentation of the desktop is a positive thing for Linux, and for open source in general.

“It isn’t just about the PC any more. The biggest device battle is still being fought and Linux has a real chance here,” he says.

“The trouble is that IT on the desktop moves at a glacial pace. I have a machine here that is running Office 2003, for example. Although Microsoft is losing some of its grip, it is a slow process.”

“If it is there, people will use it”

Other factors working in Linux’s favour are virtualisation and the availability of dual-boot machines. It means more people can try test the water without too much risk, Lachal says.

Clearly, Linux is not going to push Microsoft off the desktop and into oblivion in the next six months (rest easy, Mr Ballmer). It is more likely to continue what it has been doing: gradually gaining ground, winning over detractors as it becomes more user-friendly, and taking advantage of cloud computing and new form factors.

Kenyon remains upbeat. “Most people use the operating system that their PC came with,” he says. “This is why the work we do at Canonical is so important. We want to see a majority of the world's PCs certified and eventually pre-installed with Ubuntu.”

Lachal goes along with that. “If it is there, people will use it,” he says. ®

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