Commentary: The desktop revolution

Open source evangelists predict the age of Linux on the corporate desktop is imminent.

NEW YORK -- Linux has morphed from a scrappy underdog to a major player in the enterprise server platform marketplace during the last two years. Now Linux is poised to do the unthinkable: take away at least 30% of Microsoft's share of the enterprise desktop market in the next three years.

Sure, corporate migrations to the Linux desktop in 2004 probably won't put a dent in Microsoft's market share. But the number of desktop Linux announcements at this week's LinuxWorld Conference & Expo shows that 2004 will go down in ITstory as the year the enterprise Linux desktop technologies arrived and the business world took notice.

At LinuxWorld, most major software and systems vendors will make desktop Linux announcements. Not all will offer new products, but they will make it clear that they will support desktop Linux in some way.

Linux community leaders are forecasting that Linux will give Microsoft a run for its enterprise desktop money. In fact, open source software pioneer Bruce Perens predicts that Linux will achieve nearly 30% penetration into the business desktop by 2006.

This may seem farfetched, but Perens points to several indicators that support his prediction. On the technology front, Linux-friendly office suites StarOffice and OpenOffice.org have matured and are now full-featured, Microsoft Office-comparable products. The Mozilla browser has also come of age, too, presenting an alternative to Microsoft Internet Explorer.

Perens has predicted that enterprise adoption would begin with large companies -- such as Wal-Mart and Ernie Ball -- that use customized business applications. Next will come smaller companies that want to break away from Microsoft's licensing fees, upgrade schedule, security problems and bundles of unnecessary software.

In both small and large businesses, said Perens, businesses will find that they can use the OpenOffice.org family of office applications as easily as Microsoft Office.

The OpenOffice.org project has been busy lately, releasing enhancements "that provide an even more compelling alternative to Microsoft Office," said Linux consultant and Samba Team co-founder John H. Terpstra. "The new features will permit lower cost, high productivity commercial publishing to expand the use of open source technologies. Cost reductions of the order of 60 to 70% will be achieved."

Two vendors in particular -- Sun Microsystems Inc. and Novell Inc. -- have been ahead of the pack in backing the Linux desktop. Now, they have the opportunity to have tremendous clout in the corporate marketplace, said CodeWeavers CEO Jeremy White.

Sun has already put its powerful product development and support organization behind its StarOffice suite and its sibling, the open source office suite, OpenOffice.org. In August, 2003, Sun introduced The Java Desktop System, which enables a user to connect to a Windows environment from an entirely Linux-based interface with Star Office and Ximian. In early January, 2004, Novell put its acquisition of Linux desktop vendor, Ximian, and Linux distributor SuSE to work with a Ximian/SuSE Linux 9.0 desktop release backed by Novell's global support program.

"If Sun keeps rolling with JDS, and if Novell comes out swinging for the desktop, it will be the first time in nearly 10 years that there will be any interesting competition for the desktop space," said White. St. Paul, Minn.-based CodeWeavers creates software that makes Linux a Windows-compatible operating system.

But enough about vendors. Linux evangelism began in the early 1990s as a grass roots movement. And users are still the force that keeps it going and going. The difference today, however, is that those user ranks now contain CTOs, CIOs and IT managers, not just hobbyists.

Those corporate users have gotten a taste of Linux on the server -- largely via file-and-print and database serving -- and they crave more, according to market analysts like Amy Wohl. At the recent Desktop Linux Consortium in Tyngsboro, Mass., Wohl said that many of the U.S. IT users she'd canvassed were planning to implement Linux on the desktop in the next three years.

The Linux movement is all about freedom of choice for users. To give businesses an alternative to vendor-tied Linux desktops, Perens recently created UserLinux., an initiative to create a non-commercial Linux distribution and complementary package of open source software.

Finally, Microsoft itself has given a boost to the enterprise Linux desktop movement. Recent licensing fee increases have riled Microsoft's corporate customers, said Perens.

IT pros have told OpenOffice.org consultant Solveig Haugland that they're tired of Microsoft's "lock-in" practices. They're actively interested in breaking free from proprietary software.

Users have told us the same things. For example, Greg Rundlett, CTO of the Knowledge Institute of East Kingston, N.H., said that several factors -- such as security and digital rights management -- would cause businesses to look for alternatives to Microsoft. Ed Selvaraj, a Linux and Unix systems administrator at a nonprofit agency in Watertown, Mass., said that he would like to see his company move to Linux on the desktop because he is "sick of Microsoft."

"Corporate desktop users will ask themselves if they trust Microsoft, and the answer will be 'No!,'" said Haugland. They'll realize that Microsoft will continue to "come up with some complicated system where you're locked into paying for Windows and unforeseen upgrades, into having to go through painful upgrades from one version to another."

Those users will be in the exhibit halls of LinuxWorld, and they'll get their ears and eyes full of ways and means to make the move to desktop Linux.

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