Inertia the obstacle to Linux on the desktop

The progress of Linux on the desktop has been slower than many may have hoped. Microsoft Windows is deeply entrenched, and any competing system has to overcome obstacles of inertia, perception and distribution, but it would be a mistake to assume that nothing has happened, or that no progress is being made.

The migration of Linux into the server space was also slow, and began with a steady uptake on the smaller backroom tasks during the 1990s, (file and print servers, LAMP applications, web servers and firewalls), before its rapid adoption during the dotcom boom by IBM, HP and others. In more recent years, the majority of blue chip business applications have become available to Linux, and Linux has replaced Unix as the choice for many mission-critical server applications, an area where Microsoft has never been a serious contender. A similar effect is happening with the Linux desktop.

The ubiquitous PC that sits on every office desktop is an absurd extravagance for many users. Much like keeping a Ferrari to go to the shops, the PC has capabilities that are never exploited during its daily life. The full capacity of the processor, the operating system, software and disk space are seldom utilised.

On the desktops of many organisations the typical user does little more than edit and display data across the network. Much of the power of the PC is redundant, yet IT resources are increasingly devoted to the PC upgrade cycle. In such circumstances it makes sense to consider other options such as thin clients, virtualisation and PDAs. The money saved can be better used elsewhere. In these markets, where scalability and flexibility are at a premium, Linux is the fast moving alternative - and can be deployed just as easily as a lean thin client at the point of sale, or as a fully-featured desktop for the developer or the power user, without any sense of a disconnection between the two.

The complaints of home users about lack of support for games, drivers, and proprietary data formats either don't apply to business, or don't apply where the desktop has been pre-installed by an original equipment manufacturer (OEM), and there is no distinct advantage in going with Microsoft. Linux can be deployed across an organisation, or side by side with Windows in a truly heterogeneous environment, playing in the niches where it provides singular cost and performance advantages.

Special effects

The current market for the Linux desktop can be separated into three different niches. The first niche is that sector of the work station market that has previously been the preserve of Unix, where Linux on Intel offers considerable price/performance advantages. This has happened in many specialised industries. The classic example is the Hollywood animation industry, where Linux workstations running on Intel have replaced traditional Risc Unix systems. The digital special effects used in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for instance, were developed by Weta Digital Ltd in Wellington, New Zealand, using IBM Intellistation workstations, and the animators and graphic artists who work for Dreamworks use Red Hat Linux running on HP supplied commodity hardware.

"There are cost benefits in migrating to Linux", according to Adam Jollans, IBM's worldwide Linux strategy manager, "and it makes sense where the key applications, originally written for Unix, have been ported to Linux. The Unix workstation has tended to thrive in industries where performance factors are critical. The markets tend to be applications dependent, so migration tends to happen on an industry by industry basis."

Other industries where Linux has been especially successful include car manufacturing, oil and gas exploration, and the financial service sectors.

Linux is widely deployed in the government sector throughout Europe, where the prime incentive is cost savings, but the greatest prospective market is in Asia, where Windows is not so deeply entrenched, and Linux is competing on a more level playing field. The attraction of Linux in emerging markets is a combination of its traditional virtues of cheapness, reliability, flexibility and security, and the wide support it provides for minority languages. The greatest long term benefit of Linux to these markets is that free and open source software gives local access to the underlying technologies - the extensive support for minority languages, for instance, has come from the minority communities themselves.

The second area where Linux uptake has been strong is in the area of applications development. With tools such as JBoss and Eclipse, developers have a graphical user interface and an IDE, plus the ability to do bare-knuckle programming with vi and Emacs or the shell. Linux has proven to be especially attractive to Java, C and C++ programmers, who have been known on occasion to precipitate the migration by sneaking Linux desktops into their offices under the radar. Linux slots seamlessly and unnoticed into Windows networks, and there is often no reason to discriminate against its use. Linux is also a natural home for the wide spectrum of languages that have a long association with free and open source software, such as Lisp, Perl, php and Ruby.

The third area in which there has been rapid uptake of the Linux desktop is in thin client, or web-based, computing. The drivers here are cost related. On the client side there is a reduction in hardware requirements. One of the challenges facing industry today is how to maintain expensive software, how to ensure that the code is clean and protected, and how to ensure that each user has the latest version. There is an obvious attraction in the ability to dynamically download client code as it is needed. Thin client or server-based computing reduces the requirement for high performance computers on every desktop, and vastly reduces the overheads for storage, maintenance and cooling. This kind of strategy has proven particularly advantageous to larger organisations.

A secondary advantage of Linux to the enterprise is that it releases the user from single vendor lock in. Organisations have also been known to threaten to adopt Linux as a tool to negotiate a better deal with Microsoft. This was alleged to be the case with Newham Borough Council, which was at one stage looking at Linux, but decided "for cost reasons" to continue with Windows.

No special training

A modern Linux desktop, such as that provided by Ubuntu or SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop), is versatile and fully functional, and interoperates seamlessly with Windows and Unix environments. The OpenOffice desktop productivity suite is sponsored by Novell and Sun Microsystems, and reads and writes Microsoft Office formats.

Earlier this year, Peugeot-Citroen announced the deployment of 20,000 Linux desktops, despite claiming to have no great in-house Linux expertise. The Linux desktops will be deployed on IBM hardware throughout the company from the sales force to the assembly line floor, and will interact with existing Windows networks. Guy Lunardi, a Novell senior product manager, said that "No extra people have been hired for the project. The new desktops do not require any special training, except for a quick, double page set of explanations."

According to Jollans: "What made Linux happen on the server were a set of business drivers: reduced cost of ownership, combined with increased security, reliability and flexibility. Those drivers play just as well on the desktop, and implementations are happening, though not on the same scale, as Linux on the server." IBM is currently running pilots, similar to the Peugeot-Citroen deal, with more than 100 different customers, running Lotus Notes on Linux desktops.

Modern users find no greater difficulty in moving from Windows XP to Vista or Ubuntu or Apple OSX. Most of the arguments used against the Linux desktop are not based on a current technical assessment of a fast moving package, but on the historic dominance of the desktop by Microsoft and the habitual reluctance of consumers to change - "We know a certain way of doing things and expect things to stay the way they are." This attitude has its virtues. To be a trained user of a word processor on the employment market is taken to mean that you can use Word and Excel, and reviews of the Linux desktop are often predicated on its ability to translate Microsoft documents, or the replication of existing features in Word or PowerPoint. But the difference in skills required to use Windows and Office, or Linux and OpenOffice, is minimal, and the jump from Windows XP to Ubuntu or SLED is probably less traumatic than the leap from Windows XP to Vista.

The best argument against the adoption of the Linux desktop is that it is unfamiliar to many users, which is no argument at all. In a commercial environment, Linux does everything you might want it to do, without a fuss, and is supported, to different degrees, by Red Hat, Novell, IBM, HP, Sun Microsystems, SGI, Ubuntu, Dell and the majority of corporate ISVs. Ultimately, inertia is the greatest obstacle to the rise of Linux on the desktop.