Declaring victory for the Linux desktop at the end of the day will based upon looking at market penetration of Linux based clients vs. Windows and other operating systems. I believe this is still the best measure but we may finally be able to declare this year the breakout of the Linux desktop.
When looking at operating system software adoption it is important to look at trends and not a single break through event that will signal that “we have made it.” It is kind of like economic forecasting – you look at a lot of leading indicators to decide whether we are heading towards an expansion or a recession; inflation, interest rates, productivity, employment rates, etc. It is worth applying this logic when looking at the Linux desktop. Based on just a cursory glance of news this week it is clear that all leading indicators suggest a significant expansion on the horizon.
Let’s look at each of these factors individually:
1. The Usability Breakthrough; the Linux desktop has finally reached functional equivalence with Windows and Mac OS. The perfect balance of simplicity and flexibility is still being refined, but for anyone who has used Ubuntu, OpenSuse, Fedora, GoS, Zonbu, or an Asus EEE PC; it is clear that a Linux desktop is able to match Apple or Windows when it comes to functionality and usability.
2. Device support. Long a complaint of the Linux desktop user, we are finally seeing broad coverage in driver support for almost every kind of hardware available. Kernel space has really licked almost all of these with only a few small holdouts in wireless and video. Now the focus is on user space configuration tools that enable Linux users to get full functionality out of the many devices supported on the platform.
3. Economics; In order to grow the PC market beyond the saturated markets in the west, the industry is moving towards low cost PC’s to grow the overall market place. Much of this growth is coming in from Asia where manufacturers are putting the squeeze on the high license fees Microsoft charges by opting for Linux instead. This year we are seeing Linux based PC’s from almost every major manufacturer including Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo and more. This price competition favors Linux heavily because Microsoft will always be reluctant to give up their cash cow of high license fees.
4. The Netbook breakthrough; The New York Times reported last week at Intel’s developer conference “Dozens and dozens of netbooks were shown,” and “computer makers saw for the first time “just how many competitors they have.”” According to a research analyst in Times article, these devices “could cost the same as a cell phone – or lower.” This is going to open huge new markets for Linux based devices.
5. The Seinfeld factor. Microsoft Vista is a gift to Linux. Windows is having a brand meltdown. Users are unsatisfied with the OS so much so that Microsoft is trying to enlist an American icon to help change peoples minds. While Seinfeld is great, Microsoft should know that the quickest way to ruin a brand is to increase advertising for a bad product.
6. The move to mobile. It is a quickly becoming a foregone conclusion that a large portion, if not a majority of users will access the internet through mobile devices in the future. The Linux desktop benefits from this. Google’s Android platform is based on the Linux Kernel, the LiMo Foundation’s efforts use glibc, Gnome, the kernel and more. Nokia has Linux based offerings. All of this will bring more developers, both commercial and non-commercial to the Linux desktop party.
7. Web 2.0. The fact that the desktop itself is less relevant is making Linux more relevant than ever. In a world where most people access their favorite applications through a browser it makes little sense to have an expensive and bloated OS underneath. Linux is really the only option here as Microsoft is unable to innovate and Apple rules the high end of the market.
8. Business users are starting to care. IBM’s recent announcement of a Lotus enabled Linux client shows that big business is finally waking up to the value of a Linux desktop effort. IBM in particular is worth paying attention to here. When they get behind a platform it can move markets.
There continues to be challenges. Lack of games on the Linux platform continues to be a weakness, Microsoft dominates this market and leverages their experience with the Xbox and their Xbox live service. The lack of availability of Microsoft Office or a reasonably compatible Office alternative is a subject to long to write about here but obviously hurts Linux in the short run. Finally, the need for pan industry cooperation along application standards is critical. The Linux desktop may constantly divide efforts along incompatible versions of the OS and prevent a unified front against Microsoft.
At the Linux Foundation we continue to see big changes afoot enabling the Linux desktop. We continue to support educating makers of devices about how to write drivers for Linux, we continue to support improving printing on Linux through our open printing project, we are looking to bring new developers to the platform through the Linux Developer Network and continue to provide a framework for desktop and mobile standardization through the Linux Standard Base.
Why is the desktop important? Because it is symbolic. It excites programmers, it is tangible to everyone, it easy accessible and easily understood by all. Linux is finally in a position to provide a choice to Microsoft’s long held monopoly. We should never lose site of the importance of inspiring people about just how far an open operating system can go.