As commercial Linux vendors in the United States and Europe refocus their businesses on enterprise software and back-end systems, they are ignoring a potentially huge desktop marketplace starting to gather serious momentum in much of Asia and the Third World. Are these companies making a fundamental error? If so, Asian software
developers may be poised to take a run at the desktop applications market
in a few years.
Some months back, Red Hat made it official. The desktop was not important, at least not if the company planned to stay in business. The
back-end was where it was at, as large enterprises were likely to pay
for Red Hat's support and customization services. One by one, other Linux
developers have come to the same conclusion.
One of the latest to jump on the back-end bandwagon has been
SuSE. Lately, this German Linux developer has focused increasingly
on corporate back-end applications, especially its SuSE Enterprise
Server package. That package has been characterized as the most commercial Unix-like of SuSE's offerings to date, and it comes with a service package that places
restrictions on the number of tweaks downstream users can make to the platform. Such
restrictions are heresy in the Open Source community, but company
spokespeople suggest that only by restricting changes to the code base can SuSE or
its competitors effectively service corporate accounts.
Some potential prospects agree. An IT executive at a major energy company told me that while his firm has been tempted by Linux, "large companies live and die on
the consistency and scalability of their systems. People can't be
making undocumented tweaks to core software without our knowing about it, and
our technical partners can't be caught by surprise if portions of the
code base are changed without their being aware of it."
Meanwhile, SuSE has taken a number of steps to de-emphasize its
focus on the desktop. Although SuSE's new release 8.0 includes the GNOME
1.4.1 graphical interface, it also comes without what has become the most
important user application, Sun's StarOffice. Although the distribution includes
OpenOffice, a stripped-down version of the software, the reduced
functionality of OpenOffice almost certainly makes the package less attractive to
casual users. France's MandrakeSoft is also restricting the distribution of
StarOffice, limiting it to its premier customers.
Meanwhile, Sun is backing away from its earlier assertions that Linux
was best suited to low-end systems and applications. Analysts at a
recent conference with Sun Microsystems president Ed Zander report that the
company is hearing from its systems integrators that Sun needs to dissolve the
barriers between its proprietary Solaris platform and Linux. One
analyst from Merrill Lynch went so far as to predict that, "We think ... Linux
at the low end and Solaris above may meld into 'Solinux.'" The company
has begun to promote Linux in back-end applications. Sun and SuSE have
cooperated in adopting Sun's Grid Engine 5.3 to a Linux platform. Grid
software makes use of extra cycles on unused machines within a
workgroup, effectively creating virtual mainframes throughout the enterprise for
roughly the $80 cost of the software.
While all this activity generates a revenue stream for companies
that badly need it, it may be a strategic mistake in the long term. This is
because outside of Europe and North America, Linux is beginning to
emerge as a serious desktop alternative. As I've noted in a number of previous
columns, countries in Africa and Asia are adopting Open Source
with a speed that could eventually have important consequences for domestic
software and systems vendors.
Countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan are important
hardware equipment makers, but with a few exceptions they have not had much of a
foothold in the software business. That could change, and desktop Linux
could be the vehicle that allows these countries to emerge as Linux
powerhouses in a few years.
In Malaysia, a number of universities are trying to
lead a major initiative toward nationwide adoption of Linux and away from
a dependence on bootlegged proprietary software. Malaysia's National
Computer Confederation has developed a plan led by its Open Source Special
Interest Group that includes programs for the country's end users, systems
administrators, developers and company managers. Planners recently concluded a forum
that attracted local representatives of high tech companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, as well as local technology developers and
the Malaysian Academy of Science.
In China, Taiwan and Singapore, the widespread use of
computers has lagged well behind a number of western countries, in part because
of the complexities of typing thousands of Chinese language characters.
Chinese keyboards are far more complex than their western equivalents and
developers have struggled with a variety of alternatives including pen-based
systems, speech-to-text, or requiring typists to key in transliterations of
Chinese words using the roman alphabet. It has been an area where
Microsoft and other proprietary systems developers could have taken an important
lead, but haven't.
One of the best input systems is called ChangJie, a Chinese
character input system created by Chu Bong-foo, a prominent figure in the East
Asian IT community. Recently Chu demonstrated that he had adapted ChangJie
for China's Red Flag Linux distribution. The resulting platform, nicknamed Chinese 2000, is being promoted in both mainland China and Taiwan as the first really viable
alternative to Microsoft on Asian desktops.
In much of Asia, the only real competition to Linux-on-the-desktop
comes from bootlegged Microsoft products. According to the Business
Software Association, over 50% of the software used in Taiwan is
pirated. Estimates in Hong Kong and mainland China run as high as 80%. In
Malaysia, a prominent government department involved with enforcement of
copyrights recently revealed that many of its desktops were running on bootlegged
This is starting to change. Local governments are struggling
to rein-in illegal versions of Windows products. And as easier-to-use
desktop applications-based programs like ChangJie start to come on stream, the
price of these localized applications may prove to be irresistible.
Sources claim that Chinese 2000 with Kai Office 6.0 applications will sell for
around $50. A legal package of equivalent software from Microsoft will
sell for about $725.
Widespread adoption is still some years away. According to a
spokesman for Malaysia's Open Source Special Interest Group, Linux faces a number
of perceptual barriers. Microsoft's disinformation campaign about Open
Source's reliability and consistency has been particularly effective in
discouraging early adoption by many local companies and government
agencies. In addition, many companies in the region have yet to wake up to
Microsoft's vulnerability to hacking and viruses. A recent poll by NISER, Malaysia's Information and Communications Technology Security and Emergency Response Center found that over 70% of the companies surveyed had not conducted any formal evaluation of the security
of their IT systems, and according to NISER spokesperson Raja Azrina Raja
Othman, the few who have conducted security audits conducted them as a
result of government mandates.
Observers have warned that the lack of security awareness is at odds
with the country's announced ambitions to become a global Internet banking center and service bureau for the financial services
industry. As security awareness grows, however, this sector is expected to become
a critical adopter of Open Source. Linux has already gained a prominent
toehold in Asian academic circles. Important parts of the Malaysian and
Chinese economy, notably the healthcare sector, have become prominent
early adopters of Linux. The region has begun to develop an vibrant, if
embryonic software development and service infrastructure based on Open Source
And, if it succeeds in Asia, both Linux-on-the-desktop, and the
companies that have developed it, could show up in the West in a few years.
Will European and American Linux vendors be ready to compete for the
desktop? Or will they continue to be focused elsewhere?