Linux: Who got it right, who got it very wrong?

Summary:Who predicted Linux servers would outnumber Windows servers by 2006? Who said one in five enterprise desktops would be Linux-based by 2008? We look back at the bad (and good) predictions made about Linux over the past decade.

Who predicted Linux servers would outnumber Windows servers by 2006? Who said one in five enterprise desktops would be Linux-based by 2008? We look back at the bad (and good) predictions made about Linux over the past decade.

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Analysts picked up on the possibilities of open source pretty early on, particularly its ability to unify the long-fragmented Unix market around a single, consistent platform. The persistent incompatibilities between Unix distributions, each of which had been used by vendors to preserve their enterprise market share, led to great enthusiasm for Linux as an alternative, which was both open and far more consistent.

Back in 2000, Forrester Research pegged the Linux market — based on server revenues — at US$1.5 billion, to grow to US$2.5 billion in 2002 and US$15 billion in 2007. A 2002 Giga Information Group report was entitled "Linux has gone mainstream: are you up to it?" and predicted Linux would overtake Windows as the leading operating system on new servers by 2006.

Proprietary Unix is stone-cold dead

Forrester analyst Ted Schadler

A 2003 survey of enterprise shopping lists let Forrester Research conclude that these predictions were on track: 72 percent of respondents, the firm reported, were planning to use more Linux systems in 2004, a quarter were replacing Windows servers with Linux systems.

In the survey, only 46 percent of customers were holding off purchasing because of perceived lack of enterprise support — a concern that started to evaporate as IBM and HP led the charge to embrace Linux shortly after.

Forrester analyst Ted Schadler was effusive in his praise, declaring that "proprietary Unix is stone-cold dead" and warning that "laggard [independent software vendors] will regret their go-slow approach to Linux".

This decade, the success of Linux has created an imperative for companies of all types to be seen as being involved in 'open source'.

Such early enthusiasm appears to have been poorly considered: IDC's latest Worldwide Quarterly Server Tracker found that Windows still accounted for 36.6 percent of fourth-quarter 2007 server shipments, while Linux accounted for just 12.7 percent. Even Unix, so readily dismissed by Schadler, continues to post growth, with 33.3 percent of server spending and 1.5 percent growth from a year earlier.

While their assessment of Linux's eventual market share may have been wrong, predicting strong growth for Linux has been a sure bet.

Last month, IDC vice president of research Al Gillen confirmed analysts are still jumping over themselves with joy over Linux, noting that the market had actually reached US$21 billion by 2007 — far oustripping Forrester's 2003 prediction. He predicted the Linux server business would grow at 35.7 percent year-on-year to reach US$49 billion by 2011.

Trickle-on effect still a trickle
The phenomenal growth of Linux may have proven that open-source software has what it takes to run real-world businesses, but the way hasn't been so clear for other open-source products.

Standouts like the Apache Web server and Samba Windows interconnection application, have become nearly ubiquitous within corporate datacentres. The Firefox browser has also won strong support, as has the open-source Thunderbird mail client.

However, these are token victories that mainly offer new options for home users and small businesses. No other open-source application has enjoyed anywhere near the massive commercial success of Linux through its creation of an entire services and support ecosystem.

Instead, they have served as game-changers — motivators to encourage for-profit vendors like IBM and Microsoft to up their game and offer extra value in their respective products.

Indeed, this decade, the success of Linux has created an imperative for companies of all types to be seen as being involved in "open source" — with a similar imperative to that created by "greenwashing", where companies portray themselves as being environmentally friendly or carbon neutral. This wave of change has been even more significant than sheer adoption numbers, since it has even pushed Microsoft to make concessions to interoperability such as its recent Office Open XML file format standardisation.

This carry-on trend, which might rightly be termed "sourcewashing", has fostered some interesting benefits — for example, the move to open-source Java, IBM's open-source Eclipse integrated development environment, or Computer Associates' decision to breathe life into its once premium-branded Ingres database by releasing it free to the world in an open-source version.

Other tools, such as the JBoss application server or MySQL database, gained huge momentum that helped them stand out in the market and effectively eliminated demand for low-end, proprietary tools in many categories.

Nowhere is the gap between philosophical acceptance and actual adoption clearer than on the desktop.

Some open-source leaders, however, have still failed to make a big mark, particularly in application categories where larger enterprise companies have thrown millions of dollars in development funding such as business intelligence and customer relationship management (CRM).

In 2003, Forrester published a report entitled "open source collaboration platforms: give it five more years" — but now, five years later, the collaboration market is still dominated by the likes of Microsoft SharePoint Server and IBM's Lotus/Domino combination. Open-source Web 2.0-styled products, such as wiki servers, are certainly gaining in popularity — but their effect outside the firewall is far greater than inside.

A Forrester survey in 2005 of IT decision makers in Australia and New Zealand found that local businesses were still lagging North American counterparts in enthusiasm for open source.

In that survey, only 18 percent of firms were using Linux in production, and 82 percent respondents had no plans to adopt non-Linux open-source apps like Sugar CRM, the Open Workbench project management system, and the PostgreSQL database. Equally telling, only 10 percent of respondents were using or planning to use open-source software on the desktop, compared with 26 percent across the Asia-Pacific region.

A decade and a half after Linux appeared, it has succeeded in changing the terms of reference for the world's software producers.

The end of Microsoft? Hardly
Nowhere is the gap between philosophical acceptance and actual adoption clearer than on the desktop where — despite critical praise of recent Linux distributions such as Ubuntu and the backing of Sun for the OpenOffice productivity suite — Linux has still failed in its mission to supplant incumbent Microsoft and its Windows-Office dominance.

Early Linux-fuelled enthusiasm wouldn't have predicted the apathy the market has shown for the far lower-cost solutions offered by the open-source community. In late 2002, a Giga report projected that "the arrival of attractively priced competing office suites combined with dissatisfaction with current Microsoft licensing plans will create upwards of a five percent market share loss" for Microsoft.

Betting against Microsoft in any industry has always been a bad idea. In a March Forrester presentation, Giga's optimism proved misplaced: "The lack of a viable, enterprise-ready alternative to Microsoft Office — particularly an alternative to Outlook — will keep Microsoft firmly planted in the enterprise for the foreseeable future," Forrester concluded.

Ditto the desktop, where Windows continues to reign supreme. In 2004, IDC predicted that growing Linux adoption would push the operating system from three percent market share to seven percent by 2008, with sales of PCs running Linux to hit US$10 billion. Even those figures paled compared to the predictions of Siemens Business Systems, which in 2003 predicted that Linux would have captured 20 percent of the enterprise desktop market by 2008.

It is now 2008, and Windows is still the dominant operating system; if anything, Mac OS X has supplanted Linux as the alternative desktop of choice. Linux is out there, but erratically: it runs, for example, on ASUS's popular Eee mini-notebook PC and in March was chosen by IBM for low-cost PCs to be shipped to customers in Eastern Europe. Despite a few isolated purchases, however, desktop PC purchases are still all about Windows.

Open source as a force for change
A decade and a half after Linux appeared, it has succeeded in changing the terms of reference for the world's software producers. IDC believes the services and software ecosystem around Linux will grow from US$18 billion in 2006 to be worth over US$40 billion by 2010.

Open-source software, once derided as the unsupportable and unreliable work of hobbyists, has secured itself a place at the table of many a large enterprise, although in ways that were different than many expected even five years ago.

By promoting a culture of transparency and forcing independent software vendors and service providers to add value in new ways, open source can be lauded for shaking up an industry that was ripe for a change. Instead of thinking in terms of market domination and customer lock-in, the industry is now prepared to work for its lunch — and to respect the customers' desire for a better option, whether it's open source or otherwise.

Topics: Open Source, Hardware, Linux, Microsoft, Reviews, Servers, Windows

About

As large as the US mainland but with a smaller population than Texas, Australia relies on ICT innovation to maintain its position as a first-world democracy and a role model for the developing Asia-Pacific region. Award-winning journalist David Braue has covered Australia’s IT and telecoms sectors since 1995 – and he’s as quick to draw le... Full Bio

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