TORONTO -- Declarations that 2004 will be the year of the Linux desktop may not be premature, but they can be labeled overzealous.
Substantial commercial support for the Linux desktop is creeping upward and vendors like Novell Inc., Red Hat Inc. and others are devoting more resources toward bringing about an inevitable enterprise desktop revolution. But don't expect an overnight overhaul.
"It's really early; it's not being deployed on a large scale, but there are encouraging signs," said Novell executive and Ximian co-founder Nat Friedman during his keynote Wednesday at the Real World Linux 2004 Conference and Expo. "We're hearing about a lot of large-scale pilots this year and they're based on similar arguments to what we were hearing for Linux servers."
Namely, enterprises are enamored by Linux's flexibility and the ability they have to select only the components they need; its security ("open source software doesn't execute code by default," Friedman said); and low licensing costs. Novell, Friedman said, is committed to building its Linux desktop offering on as close to 100% open source software as possible.
Novell became the No. 2 Linux distributor when it acquired SuSE Linux AG in January. That purchase came on the heels of its buy of Ximian from Friedman and co-founder Miguel de Icaza last year. Ximian's Red Carpet and ZenWorks management capabilities will be incorporated into Novell's desktop offering, Friedman said.
Novell already has committed to moving its 6,000 employees to Linux on the desktop internally, Friedman said. The move will come in phases, the first being a move to the OpenOffice productivity suite on Windows by July 31, followed by full-time use of a Linux desktop by Oct. 31 for at least 50% of the company.
Friedman said Linux desktop adoption will be gradual, explaining that there won't be a singular day when all technical issues are solved and the desktop would be ready for everyone.
He said the first wave of mass turnover will be with technical workers, primarily former Unix workstation users. Friedman said simple hardware economics are at play here; the Linux-on-Intel boxes are cheaper than proprietary Unix workstations from Sun, HP or IBM, for example. "There are some 6.5 million Unix workstations out there. I think this is a gimme for Linux," Friedman said. "Linux will take over there. There aren't many new Unix workstation deployments happening. Most are Linux. The hardware is cheaper."
Transactional workers will be the next to fall, Friedman said. In particular, adoption will take off initially at call centers and in point-of-sale applications. Eventually, the Linux desktop will be adopted by general knowledge workers.
Several barriers have to be scaled, Friedman said. Application availability is the primary hurdle. Core productivity applications like e-mail (Evolution), office (OpenOffice) and browsers (Mozilla) are readily available and reliable, but enterprise-class CRM, ERP and HR apps are lacking.
"It's an inevitable wave," Friedman said. "The applications are really filling out."
And so are the success stories.
- Munich, Germany's recently disclosed plans to move off Windows to Linux on the desktop is the most high profile large-scale migration, but there are many others.
- Extremadura, Spain recently deployed 80,000 Linux desktops into its K-12 educational system, essentially providing one Linux desktop for every two students.
- Largo, Fla. recently moved its municipal government's 900 desktops to Linux.
- Sao Paolo, Brazil recently installed 10,000 Linux computers for use in public hotspots.
- Thailand has its own Linux distribution and the government subsidized Linux desktops for small and medium businesses for up to 1 million users. The government agreed to pay for half of a business' hardware costs if those companies use the Thai Linux distribution.