I just finished reading Dana Blankenhorn's post, "Will Ubuntu remain a minor player" on a break between interviews and meetings. Interestingly, just before I read his post, I met with the President of Metasys, a Brazilian company that has Linux-based servers, desktops, and software in thousands of schools, businesses, and homes throughout Latin America, Africa, and Europe. Metasys is running on 350,000 desktops in Brazil alone. And guess what? People pay for it because it's good; it has a great ecosystem of server, software, and management products; and because it's still drastically cheaper than Windows.
While Dana's post specifically addressed Ubuntu, he might as well have been asking if Linux would always be a marginal player on the desktop. If I have learned nothing else by attending the Classmate Eco System Summit it's that there are a lot of people outside the United States doing a lot of incredibly innovative things in education and that many of them are doing it cheaply with Linux.
So-called "emerging markets" (which, at this rate, won't be emerging for long, and will quickly become "overtaking markets") are rolling out a variety of operating systems and engaging in really progressive learning models. Worldwide, there are 13 million active Ubuntu users with use growing faster than any other distribution. Check out these trends from Google gauging online interest (with breakdowns by region).
In many places, people (far more than the 300 million in the US) are buying their first computers with no preconceptions about what an OS should be. As these markets explode, one has to wonder if our perception that the US is the only market that matters to operating system vendors will change. Microsoft gets it; they are putting incredible amounts of pressure on governments in Brazil to compete with Metasys and are largely proving unsuccessful (this is only one example, of course; Microsoft is working very aggressively in countless other markets and had a vocal presence at the first full day of the Summit).
In China, Ubuntu is gaining traction quickly since, due to rampant piracy, Windows is essentially free in that country. New users are choosing operating systems based on merit rather than price, since price is largely irrelevant in that market.
So perhaps Ubuntu, and Linux in general will struggle to gain market share on the desktop in the States for now, particularly since Windows 7 looks to be a decent operating system. We need to remember, though, that the US is not the only PC market in the world. In fact, it's a shrinking, saturated market. When many of the international partners with whom we work in this global economy find Windows and Linux to be equally legitimate (or even favor Linux because of its openness and low cost or free software), what will happen to desktop Linux here?
Even as companies like HP and Dell continue to legitimize Ubuntu through high-quality offerings on their netbooks, I think we'll see a shift here in the States. It's just that the shift Stateside won't matter all that much globally given the size of this market relative to what we now call emerging markets.