February 9, 2005

Linux desktop under attack, on the march

Author: Jay Lyman

In addition to the same old accusations of lack of familiarity, applications, and support, Linux on the desktop may be facing an attack against its one clear advantage -- price. Microsoft may be willing to make deep price cuts to staunch a potential market outflow to Linux, according to Amy Wohl, a longtime software industry observer who presented a Linux desktop achievement report at the recent OSDL Enterprise Linux Summit in San Francisco.

As she laid out the Linux landscape around the world -- indicating developing nations with lower installed bases of computers were much riper for Linux desktop opportunities -- Wohl cited the Munich, Germany, case, where Microsoft made the city's officials an offer that was hard to refuse after it seemed they were opting for open source. The reported €950 million potentially saved by the city was not something Microsoft would discuss, according to Wohl, who said the company's representatives simply indicated that all major software deals are negotiable. In the end, Munich chose Linux instead of Windows.

While it is no secret that municipalities and companies both may be using the threat of conversion to Linux to bargain with Microsoft, Wohl said Microsoft may go beyond its Windows XP Starter program announced last year to maintain its grip on the desktop market.

"Microsoft has targeted some of these countries with its Starter edition," Wohl said. "They said they looked at it as an experiment to find out what they need to do to get people to prefer Microsoft to other alternatives. When they say other alternatives, they mean us," she added in front of the open source audience. "What that means is, if this doesn't work, they might decide to change [Starter] to be more competitive against Linux," she said. "You should expect this to happen over and over."

Government powers a change

Wohl credited governments around the world -- including the U.S. -- for promoting Linux on the desktop, mainly for the cost savings. While her talk was on desktop Linux, Wohl indicated that deployment in other, developing nations -- such as African countries, China, and elsewhere -- may occur on simpler, cheaper handheld devices, where Linux already has a leg up.

Wohl said that the Windows installed base in North America may be last to make a change. However, with a world population of six billion, there are still plenty of folks who are not locked into Windows at all, she added.

Wohl also said colleges and universities were fueling the open source operating system on the desktop, with the educational sector taking its usual lead in technology. As for business, she said organizations may be buying more Linux desktops than is apparent, as the orders for Wal-Mart's Linspire-equipped computers have been mostly for multiple machines, according to chip suppliers.

Barriers and predictions

Wohl went over some of the typical barriers to more Linux desktop movement: lack of familiar software, lack of familiar support, and of course, FUD. She challenged the open source community to concentrate more on selling Linux on the desktop and conveying the value of its software.

"A lot of this has to do with peer pressure, where the momentum builds," she said. "We have to figure out how to get that started. This is marketing. We need to get better at it."

Wohl also made some predictions, indicating that in some geographic locales, Linux is likely to capture 25 to 30 percent of the desktop market within a few years. In the U.S., she envisioned desktop Linux as "a strong alternative," and predicted 10 percent market share for the OS in three years. However, Wohl estimated the current Linux desktop share in the U.S. at 3 to 3.5 percent, a figure that Hewlett-Packard's Bdale Garbee corrected to about 5 percent, with Wohl gladly accepting the increased estimate.

Wohl -- who foretold a blurring of the lines between the Linux desktop and its server deployments, where Linux is generally accepted as a success story -- also referred to the "killer app" theory. She said that was what heralded the end of Apple's reign on the desktop -- desktop Macs are now outnumbered by Linux machines -- and said the same type of compelling software could dethrone Microsoft.

"If we want people to make the change, we need to find out what will make people that gleeful and that willing to go out and change," she said.

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