The Linux Desktop - The View from LinuxCon

by David Lane

I have just finished up three days at LinuxCon in Portland, put on by the Linux Foundation. As you might expect from such an event, there were discussions on a wide range of topics, some to get you thinking, some to excite you and some to challenge your notions. The levels of presentation varied by presenter and, overall, I would say it was a great success.

One topic that was discussed quite a bit was the Linux Desktop - the state of the desktop, the future of the desktop and the direction the desktop is taking. It was so popular a topic that it was mentioned in no less than three keynotes, and not always positively.

Bob Sutor from IBM took this tack about the desktop (and I am paraphrasing, along with some of my own thoughts). One option is that It goes away. We stop using desktops so who cares. This is an interesting tack to take, especially given the large advances of small, smart devices. More and more of us have smart phones that access data in ways that are hardly traditional desktop models. The UI is as alien to the model of the traditional desktop as windowing systems were to VT-220 terminal operators. As this trend continues, even the idea of what a desktop is along with what an application is will continue to evolve, and the idea of a Linux desktop as it is today may cease to be relevant. Personally, I do not see this happening any time soon, but my crystal ball runs Windows and I have not been able to upgrade it (anyone want a good used crystal ball cheap?).

Bob then hypothesized that the Linux desktop becomes a tactic instead of a strategy. So rather than watching it disappear, a single desktop distro might evolve to capture a dominant, percentage among those using Linux as their desktop, or hey, even crazier, a dominant share of all desktops. Given that Windows currently holds such a dominant place in the market, perhaps it is enough to reach parity and have an equal share between Windows, Mac, and Linux. The Linux desktop is good but as we discussed this week, it is not the great it needs to be to gain market share. In fact, current numbers indicate that Apple is kicking our butt, with an increase in market share of almost 10 percent while the Linux desktop has actually lost ground.

There are a number of reasons for this. One of the most interesting was put forth by Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier. Joe's words echo my own thinking on this subject, which is this: If the Linux desktop is going to get any traction in the end-user community, not just among us geeks, but the moms and pops, uncles, cousins and grandparents, the industry needs to stop hiding its availability on their sites like a trade secret. He further went on to suggest that the current model of downloading distributions as ISOs, burning them to disk or USB, installing them and configuring them is too hard and unrealistic for most end users, and I agree with him. Discard for the moment the feeling among some Linux people that Linux is for smart people, how many people do you do technical support for on Windows where they have tried to install the operating system from media? If people are not installing Windows from media, why should we be expecting them to install Linux from media, even if it is a relatively straightforward process?

He then went on to ask when was the last time you walked into a store and found a Linux-based system available for use. Most in the audience were left scratching their heads. It was pointed out that there are usually one or two netbooks in the big box stores configured with Ubuntu. This is a start, but when you consider that 2 of maybe 16 laptops and maybe one of a half-a-dozen desktop systems is available with Linux already installed, is becomes a real challenge to say the Linux desktop has arrived. Finally an insightful question was asked from the floor. How many of us know of a computer repair shop that sells preconfigured Linux systems? A valid question, but here is a follow up. How many people buy their machines from somewhere other than the usual suspects? This is not to discredit the question. It is valid, and certainly another way to get Linux into the mainstream, but is not the level of critical mass we need.

But things are not all bad. Ross Chevalier, CTO at Novell, brought some numbers to the table that indicate there are some bright spots ahead, especially as corporate revenues continue to decline and companies are looking at every avenue to slash costs. In a survey by IDG, 63% of the respondents indicated that they were looking at increasing their Linux desktop use in 2009. What was not discussed is whether this is as a replacement for existing Windows machines or in addition to new Windows implementation. I will be following up with Ross to see if he knows, but it indicates that the Linux desktop is no longer the pariah of the IT shop, and it is beginning to make in-roads as a realistic mainstream desktop system, and in the areas of manufacturing, retail and financial services because it leads to lower support costs. This is important - the Linux desktop is being adopted in industries outside of traditional IT.

Clearly IT, especially those in the desktop space, is looking at, if not an inflection point, then certainly the beginning of sea change. There is no question that the definition of a desktop is undergoing a change as more and more companies rethink the necessity to put a machine under each desk. Data breaches, maintenance costs, changing device preferences and increased connection speeds are making us consider the solutions we are asked to present; as maintenance and installation costs become the long pole in the budget tent, anything that we can do to shorten that pole is good. And a Linux desktop, whatever that means, is certainly going to play a big role providing those solutions.

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