Sizing up the Linux desktop market, part 2

Mark Brunelli, News Director

Tony Iams

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Linux vendors are interested in the desktop, but not too interested. Operating systems expert Tony Iams said vendors like Red Hat and Novell have to be careful not to get ahead of demand, which is growing, but not by leaps and bounds. Iams, a vice president and senior analyst with Ideas International in Port Chester, N.Y., said that's the reason why folks don't see too much money being poured into desktop Linux marketing. But that could change eventually.

In part two of our conversation with Iams, the analyst names the rising Linux desktop vendors to keep an eye on, offers migration advice for companies considering Linux on the desktop and explains why "Windows versus desktop Linux" is essentially a non-story right now.

We've talked about the leading commercial vendors Red Hat and Novell. What about other lesser known Linux desktop providers. Who should folks keep an eye on?

Tony Iams: There are up-and-comers that are getting a lot of attention. One is Xandros, which is a business desktop, and they [Xandros Inc.] position themselves as being optimized for use in traditional [business environments]. They're basically giving you all of the same things that you would expect on a Windows desktop. A business desktop is sort of the niche that they're trying to carve.

On the desktop right now, Ubuntu is the one that I'm hearing about the most.
Tony Iams,
vice president and senior analystIdeas International

Are there any other up-and-comers that IT folks should be aware of?

Iams: The one that is really getting a lot of attention is Ubuntu. That is a Debian-based distribution that is free. So, Xandros has more of a traditional business model, where you buy copies of the software. Ubuntu is totally free. It's a little bit different in that they emphasize having a desktop version that is based on Debian and thus benefits from the legendary reliability and stability that Debian offers. It also has, on top of that, very good ease-of-use. It's going to be usable by people that aren't Linux experts and really just want to have an easy-to-use desktop based on the Debian foundation. [Ubuntu] emphasizes freedom and low cost. They don't charge for any of their releases. That is resonating with a lot of users who are concerned with low cost, stability and ease-of-use.

One name that pops into my mind is Gentoo Linux. Is it making progress on the desktop?

Iams: They're certainly there. They could be an important player. A lot of users are probably interested in them. But on the desktop right now, Ubuntu is the one that I'm hearing about the most. Gentoo can also be used as a desktop, certainly. They're emphasizing the ability to customize it. And, for some users, that's very important. But desktop users don't always care about the ability to customize. They care about ease-of-use.

What do Linux desktop providers need to do to crack Microsoft's hold on the desktop market?

Iams: You know, if there's no demand, there's nothing they can do. That's one of the real thorny questions here. The persistent question is: What is the demand for the Linux desktop? There are some users who are very interested in it. And those are the people that are really benefiting from these great offerings out there. Many users are satisfied with what they're getting from Windows right now. They simply don't see any need to change. Trying to convince people like that to adopt Linux is not necessarily going to be productive. It's not impossibly, it's just going to take a lot of work. And a lot of the vendors have concluded that it's just not worth the resources that they would have to invest to get people to switch. Instead, they're focusing on those segments of customers that are interested, not so much in switching, but in new kinds of applications that are suited for a Linux desktop -- sort of a limited function enterprise environment. That's where the demand for desktop Linux could surface in its own right because it just makes sense.

I take it that people shouldn't expect desktop Linux to replace Windows anytime soon.

Iams: This idea of replacing Windows with Linux, it makes good press. It would be a good story of David knocking off Goliath, and so on, and it could happen over the long term. But from a practical standpoint, there are far more immediate and lucrative targets for Linux, and many of those have to be on the server.


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What advice do you have for companies considering Linux on the desktop?

Iams: Users should explore moving to Linux on the server first. Even if they keep Windows on the desktop, there are a lot of things they can do by leveraging Linux on the server. One approach that makes sense is to gradually try to remove as much state as possible from their desktops. Try storing as few files as possible on the Windows desktop, and use something like Samba to keep the files on the Linux server. You can lower your cost of ownership by moving state from the desktop to the server. Users really should do that under any circumstances [even all around Windows shops]. You can call that a thin client if you want. But, you know, it's basically giving the client a diet, even if you keep the Windows operating system on the client. Then you can gradually move the servers to Linux using things like Samba. I don't want to get into the whole [total cost of ownership] thing. But you can benefit from the advantages that Linux brings to the table by having Linux on the server, even if you still have Windows on the desktop. Then, over time, as you find that the application that you need on the desktop is available for Linux, or you reduce your dependency on specific Windows applications somehow, then you can gradually start bringing Linux in on the desktop. The desktop is basically going to be the last thing to go.

If you missed it, be sure to read part one of "Sizing up the Linux desktop market," where Tony Iams describes the overall progress of Linux on the desktop thus far, and tells which types of companies are getting the greatest results from desktop Linux today.

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