At the end of 2003 industry experts speculated whether 2004 would be the year when Linux on the desktop moved from an academic curiosity to a real alternative to Microsoft.
It didn't happen. Apart from the Allied Irish Bank and a handful of others, the private sector has given desktop Linux a wide berth so far.
The public sector has been braver, with numerous organisations including government departments in Paris, Munich and Singapore making aggressive migration plans but not all of them followed through. Paris City Council nixed its plans in the short term due to the costs of migration. Munich put its migration on hold for a few months while legal issues were sorted out, but the process is now due to start in the New Year. Singapore plans to install Microsoft Office's open source competitor OpenOffice.org on 20,000 PCs, but has been unwilling to commit to migrating to Linux.
In a speech at the Gartner Symposium in October, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer seized on these setbacks as clear evidence that Linux is no competition on the desktop.
"There is no appreciable amount of Linux on the client anywhere in the world," said Ballmer. "The city of Paris, people said the city of Paris was going to adopt Linux. Well, the studies come back, it would be dramatically more expensive to move to Linux, there's no ROI case for the next seven or eight years to even consider a movement from Windows to Linux for the city of Paris."
"Now, Munich is Munich. There is the city of Munich. Yes, we lost the city of Munich. But the fact that the same story gets told 65,000 times and there's still only one customer and they're still -- how do I use a good, polite word here? -- they're still diddling around to some degree to try to decide when they're really going to do the migration. I mean, come on, where's the evidence?"
The question may have been rhetorical but Ballmer may soon get his evidence. The Norwegian city of Bergen recently announced plans to start migrating to Linux on the desktop next year.
Bergen, the second largest city in Norway, announced its decision to migrate to Linux on the server earlier this year. It has already transferred the majority of the servers in its educational network from 100 Windows NT to Linux, and is expected to migrate its database servers from HP-UX and Microsoft to Linux.
Ole-Bjørn Tuftedal, the city's chief technology officer, claims that it will, at the earliest, start migrating to Linux on school PCs in the second half of next year. This rollout will eventually lead to 32,000 pupils and 4,000 teachers using Linux at 100 schools across Bergen.
Before deciding to migrate to the open source OS, Bergen carried out tests at three schools comparing Linux with Windows. The computers were set up with Windows 2000 and MS Office 2000, or with SuSE Linux 8.2, open source desktop KDE 3.1 and OpenOffice.org 1.0.
From these tests Bergen found that both operating systems could be used in the schools, but that there were various advantages to using Linux including lower cost, improved security and usability, according to Tuftedal. He says the software and hardware costs of using Linux on the desktop are "significantly lower" and that it is more secure against vandalism, user errors and virus attacks.
As part of the test comparing Linux and Windows, pupils were challenged to break the set-up of the PCs running either of the two operating systems. A consultancy firm was brought in to harden the Windows desktop by modifying the registry settings, while Linux was used in a standard set-up, says Tuftedal. Despite the more resistant Windows set-up the pupils managed to crack into it while the Linux system proved impervious.
Usability is an area where Linux has traditionally trailed behind Windows, but Tuftedal says that without training the pupils were able to use both desktops, and actually preferred the open source set-up.
"The pupils didn't get any kind of instructions before the tests, we simply said 'These are Windows, these are Linux -- just try them'," says Tuftedal. "They preferred the Linux desktop -- they liked the look of KDE and said it was more fun to use than Windows."
The fact that Linux is open source and uses non-proprietary data formats makes it extremely useful for teaching pupils about exactly how computers operate, says Tuftedal.
"Linux has open data formats and open source code - this helps in a pedagogical environment as you can let the students learn about the formats and the tools by letting them experiment with them," says Tuftedal. "It is the same in engineering classes - if you are not allowed to open the hood and see how and why the motor isn't working you can't do much experimentation or make improvements."
Since last year, when the tests were carried out, there have been numerous improvements to the Linux operating system and the open source software that it runs, says Tuftedal.
"Since doing the initial tests, there has been an incredible speed of development on the Linux desktop," he adds. "The current version of OpenOffice, and the KDE desktop, is very much improved from what we tested -- with extra features, increased ergonomics, more tools for the users and for administration, and better internationalisation."
Despite the positive evaluation of Linux, Bergen decided to initially migrate the school computers to Windows 2000 and MS Office 2000; however, the school servers are being moved from Windows NT to Linux.
Tuftedal says this staggered migration is down to practical rather than technical reasons. If the school had migrated to the Linux desktop at the beginning of 2004, pupils would only have had a couple of months to learn how to use the new system before exam time -- PCs are used in examinations in Norwegian schools. Also, as teachers need to use Windows desktops for administration tasks, extra work was needed to make sure staff did not have to learn how to use two different desktops.
Bergen is now addressing how to ease the transition for teachers by redesigning the desktop, planning a training programme and is also considering allowing teachers to access the administrative software through thin clients.
Once the schools have been migrated to Linux, Bergen is planning to move all city employees to Linux, says Tuftedal. He expects this migration to start in 2006 and says it will probably take longer than the school migration, as there are a number of important applications with dependencies on the Windows desktop or MS Office.
Bergen is not the only Norwegian city government looking at Linux. Sarpsborg, a small city in the southeast of Norway is already using 100 percent Linux, according to Tuftedal. Other city governments are likely to move in the future, in particular the large cities which already have Unix skills that are quite easy to transfer to Linux.
"A lot of cities in Norway think about Linux or open source software," says Tuftedal. "They may be more or less willing to do this - it depends on their resources, the size of their IT department and whether they have in-house Unix skills."
Despite Microsoft's claims that Windows outperforms Linux in Unix migration scenarios, Tuftedal claims Windows has only recently caught up with Linux in terms of scalability.
"Microsoft's marketing has been ahead of the capabilities of its software, in particular considering problems of scale," he says. "It fitted the scale of small and medium business rather than the larger enterprise. If they have caught up it has only been in the latest versions -- initially software such as file services and the exchange server weren't scaled for the enterprise."
2004 wasn't the year of the Linux desktop, and given current rates of uptake it's unlikely that 2005 will be either. However, what is certain is that if more organisations follow Bergen's lead, Steve Ballmer may need to be a lot more cautious about asking for evidence of the open source OS challenging his company's desktop monopoly.