Why Linux will not displace Windows

Why Linux will not displace Windows

Summary: Many schools have turned to the Linux desktop and to thin clients to try to address critically low funding levels. Those with greater Education IT expertise are utilizing needs-based hybrid solutions -- yet Windows continue to dominate the desktop. What will it take for that to change?


I firmly believe that, all else being equal, the differences between the Windows desktop, the Macintosh desktop, and the Linux desktop are negligible.  With the proper applications, all three platforms will be capable of providing a satisfactory experience for any user.  All three platforms have both free and commercial products available for personal productivity, web browsing, and basic multimedia.  Yet, Windows dominates.  Why?  After all ...

  • Apple was first to mass market a fully-functional GUI (though invented at Xerox PARC). 
  • Apple was the first to pre-install their operating system onto their workstations.
  • Apple was first to recognize the value of personal computing to education.

Despite this, Apple's presence does not reach even ten percent of the World's desktops -- in Education IT or in the mass market.  The reasons are many but up-front costs certainly play a role.  Nevertheless, Apple is not the subject of this article ... I want to talk about Linux! 

In a feature-rich desktop configuration, Linux runs on the same hardware as Windows with comparable performance.  The 'cost' of Linux ranges anywhere from ZERO dollars (for the geeks among us) to $299 per seat (for a one-year RHEL-WS subscription -- with 12x5 technical support and 4-hour response.)  For this, the user has complete control over their system configuration.  Yet, with its fixed-price, fixed support, fixed-configuration model, Windows still dominates.  Why?

I just finished reading Vista? No thanks, school says, converts Windows boxes to Linux and I was struck by a couple of things.  Looking to reduce annual costs, the Windsor, CA School District has adopted a variety of solutions centered around workstations running SUSE Linux and Wyse Linux thin-client terminals.  (They use a few Windows and Macintosh workstations but apparently not many.)  Quoting Heather Carver, the district's IT administrator:

"One key to all this is that we're using Citrix (as the bridge) to run Windows apps on thin-client terminals — which the adults are most used to — on the new SUSE Linux 10.1 servers," Carver told DesktopLinux.com. "The kids, well, they adjust to new operating systems and applications very quickly, so a changeover to Linux is no big deal."

Her conclusions are not at all surprising but she ignores another reason why Citrix is needed:

  • most educational software is ported to Windows (and/or Macintosh), not Linux
  • the number of Windows-based titles accompanying textbooks is growing

In short, the absence of high-performance commercial desktop software hurts Linux.  Of course, application availability is a 'chicken or the egg' kind of problem.  Without a critical mass of desktop Linux workstations in people's homes or on their desks at work, there is no incentive to write (or even to port) specialized applications for/to Linux. 

This argument sounds fine until you realize that between OpenOffice and a number of Web browsers for Linux, and a variety of free (or nearly free) applications Linux truly can meet 90% of the needs of those folks who buy Windows today instead of buying Linux.  It's the other 10% though that makes the difference.  (For instance, neither Quicken or TurboTax have Linux ports and neither does iTunes -- those are not 'showstoppers' for Education IT but they certainly are for me as a consumer.)

Last week, David Berlind posed a question about the potential threat to Microsoft of the laptop being developed by the OLPC (One Laptop per Child) foundation -- targeting school children in the developing world.  (See Image Gallery: Will Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child be a problem for Microsoft?)  David's point is that this 'little laptop that could' will run a ROM-based Linux configuration.  The question applies equally well to the schoolchildren of Windsor, CA who will be running Linux on thin clients. 

The rationale, of course, is that whatever you were exposed to in school, you are likely going to want when you get out of school.  This is certainly the rationale that Microsoft uses when they grant steep discounts to K-12 public schools all over America -- and when they establish enterprise license agreements with large research universities. 

So will the strategy work?  Will these school children clamor for Linux when they get to college?  Will they buy a Linux computer when they graduate from college?  Well, it remains to be seen but, unless Linux vendors get a clue, and soon, I think not. 

Why not? 

Because for Linux, its greatest asset in the machine room -- the flexibility of its configuration -- is it's greatest liability in the consumer space.  Consumers don't want or need to worry about configuring their computers -- nor would most of them even know how. 

The consumer wants a computer which is functional and inexpensive (leaving Macintosh out of the picture for many.)  They have a limited number of needs -- write a document, prepare a spreadsheet, send an e-mail, listen to music, share photos.  But, they also have limited knowledge.

If a consumer could walk into their favorite electronics retailer and see a computer running desktop SUSE Linux (or any Linux distribution, for that matter) sitting next to an equally-robust Windows machine at the same price point, and if they could take it home and plug it in a just use it, like they can with Windows, there is no reason to believe that Linux would not be as well received as Windows. 

Unfortunately, this is not a choice most people have.  The fault does not lie with Microsoft.  Nor with Dell or its competitors.  The fault lies squarely at the feet of Linux vendors who do not wish to compete against Microsoft for the commodity desktop workstation market. 

Until they figure out that they MUST compete for the consumer desktop to make a serious dent in Microsoft's dominance of the desktop, they won't make a dent -- and no amount of wishing will make it so.

It doesn't matter how great that OLPC laptop turns out to be, or how much those K-12 kids like those Linux clients if they (or their parents) cannot go to the box-store down the street and buy the computer of their choice with Linux pre-installed.   

Topics: Hardware, Linux, Open Source, Windows

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • What would you expect from a Microsoftie?

    Usual apple and oranges b.s.. Give Linux the same advantages as Windows presently enjoys and guess who would then dominate?
    • That is exactly what I am suggesting ...

      ... by making Linux as easy for the consumer to buy and use without any special knowledge Linux vendors can insure that desktop Linux will gain much broader acceptance. But that takes someone (either the consumer or Linux vendors) demanding that Linux be available pre-installed on OEM systems.
      M Wagner
    • Give???

      "Give Linux the same advantages..."

      There's no give involved. Microsoft has worked to get Windows the dominance it holds on the desktop. The better technical solution does not necessarily win. Witness the passing of Beta, OS/2 etc..

      Give...surely you jest (an don't call me Shirley)
    • Linux rocks my socks and in 2 years or less it will you as well!

      I love the fact you pay for vista were everything you think is new is old school to us linux user's. People are scared to use linux because its different. Breaks into the comfort bubble and says you got the crap deal.

      Btw who told you it has no drivers or serves. Buy the end of 2008 you will be unable to find hard ware that linux doesn't have a driver for. And guess what its free.

      oh and you say Windows ( bloat ware ) runs a computer strat to finish. Yes it does. it does so terribly. Windows doesn't office doesn't agree to the international document format called .xml.

      The only reason in my mind to use any form of windows. Is 3d pinball. And im over that. Look over their a virus...ohhhh take that!

      Vista was in the making for years and what has it got other than xp. No 1 i no can install it properly. It does back ground De fragmenting... can some 1 remind me when linux started doing that. Oh yea from the start. Never have we had to do that. What else. ummm driect x10 doesn't work very well with older games. so you have to buy new 1's ( funny that )

      Also you say all computers are sold with windows attached. Well i saw a computer $200 dollars cheaper that comes with no operating system attached.....ohhhhh. Now thats progress.

      I don't know were you got those silly views from but they are all flawed and i didn't comment on that "linux can't run a system from star to finish" i don't know what you mean. There is no computer in my house with pure windows on it. for many years. except for gandalf (i name my computer. It has 20 gig windows 4 years old never touched the internet Because eveytime i booy into it i unplug the ethernet) i can't use that windows because i didn't look after it or something because it takes 10 minutes to log in and report 235 problems and 2 viruses???? i have no idea how all i ran on it was dawn of war every once and a while.

      Give me a good reason to use windows and i will take back everything i said ( also don't give me that you can't run windows programs on linux because why would i want to? )
  • Another Beautiful Article from Zdnet ; )

    Firstly, your title is mesleading, you need to add the word Desktop in there. When I think of Linux I thin Server. When I think of Windows I think of Desktops.

    Secondly, this statement is very wrong, "In a feature-rich desktop configuration, Linux runs on the same hardware as Windows with comparable performance." Linux runs on far less powerfull and inexpensive hardware with the same and at times greater performance.

    The 'cost' of Linux ranges anywhere from ZERO dollars (for the geeks among us) to $299 per seat (for a one-year RHEL-WS subscription ? with 12?5 technical support and 4-hour response.)

    Why are you misleading your readers? You're talking about a corporate environment where support contracts are sometimes necessary. Most of your readers aren't thinking corporate environment so you are making them think they need to buy a support contract if they want to run Linux at home. And To have complete control over your system you don't need a linux Support contract. What was that statement all about? I may not be wise to this but the last time I checked you didn't get a support contract when you bought Windows Vista for $299.

    Also, Why couldn't a consumer buy a Linux comptuer and just plug it in and go? Have you ever used GNOME? It's that easy.

    You've written an article on something you are not an expert about. You are tossing your opinions around and left out a lot of facts. And lastly, from the sounds of it you have never really used a Linux based system and it's GUI. If you had you'd realize that your average Joe could buy a desktop loaded with linux, press power and be working.
    • Correct, to be consistent ...

      ... I should have said Desktop Linux. And thinking server is exactly what Linux vendors want you to dLinux vendors do not want to sell Linux to consumers. And that's my point.

      My prices were not misleading. The extremes are truly from ZERO to $299. My audience is Education IT -- and they do care about service contracts because they have to choose between their time and their employer's money.

      Windows Vista pricing include free telephone & chat support as long as the product is supported.

      I know Gnome is that easy but which first-tier OEM sells desktop Linux pre-installed? Not Dell. Not HP/Compaq. Not IBM. Where can 'the average Joe' go and see Windows and Linux side-by-side on similar hardware?

      That is the key to consumer acceptance. Education IT would have no problem supporting Linux if OEMs supported it. As it is, Education IT can only support Linux of they have UNIX/Linux knowledgeable employees. In a thin-client setting, Linux is much easier to support than in a standalone setting. If there were sufficient OEM support for Linux, this would not be a problem.

      As a former UNIX systems administrator and having installed and run my own Linux system, I am indeed qualfied to speak on the subject.
      M Wagner
      • Wrong on support

        >Windows Vista pricing include free telephone & chat support as long as the product is supported.

        With Windows XP, you only get free support if you have a license other than an OEM license. An OEM license costs $35 per call for support, regardless if XP is still supported by Microsoft or not. I doubt they've changed that with Vista.
    • Support Issue Missed

      When was the last time your PC running windows crashed and you called Microsoft Support ?

      When was the last time an application hung and you called for support from Microsoft or the Applications Developer?

      In open source, our mainstream distributions are stable. They just work. If a program has an issue, we post it to the appropiate site and we do get solutions.

      I'll bet the author of this article has never contacted Microsoft for support and that crashing programs and buggy software is normal.

      Feel sad for them, for they know not the fruits of opensource.
  • Beg to differ... as usual!

    [B][I]?(For instance, neither Quicken or TurboTax have Linux ports and neither does iTunes ? those are not 'showstoppers' for Education IT but they certainly are for me as a consumer.)?[/I][/B]

    TurboTax has an online suite you can use. Which is better than the boxed set in that any late changes are available. Quicken, depending on the level of complexity of your needs (and most Americans really don't have that complex of a financial portfolio) then there is an open source alternative called MoneyDance. Google it.

    [B]?So will the strategy work? Will these school children clamor for Linux when they get to college? ?[/B]

    In poor countries, you better believe they will. Why? Because Linux will be the infrastructure available. In the US, possibly. With Microsoft entrenched here it's difficult to move them, but not impossible. With the current draconian system, Vista and the plethora of issues over time that have plagued Windows PC's, it is not impossible.

    [B]?Unfortunately, this is not a choice most people have. The fault does not lie with Microsoft. Nor with Dell or its competitors. The fault lies squarely at the feet of Linux vendors who do not wish to compete against Microsoft for the commodity desktop workstation market.?[/B]

    I call BS, it is the fault of Dell and other competitors. They don't want to upset the Redmond giant for fear of fiscal repercussions. Dell does offer a desktop Linux solution, or so I have been told, but you have to dig for it and by dig I mean really DIG for it. Another thing a Linux box pre-configured would be cheaper than the same Windows box. Here is the beauty of the Linux box over the Windows box, because the cost of the license is not an issue with Linux, that can be applied to better hardware, so two equally priced boxes the Linux box would be running better hardware or more RAM or faster CPU... all because there is no license fees involved.

    Another point to make on this is that a pre-configured Linux box will come with all the software, including financial software (K My Money comes to mind) that would suit the needs of the common user. No the fault lies with Dell, Hewlett Packard and the other big players in the game.

    The bottom line is that Linux not only runs on the same hardware as Windows but many hardware configurations that Windows doesn't. There are 3 areas that need to be addressed.

    1.Advertising by the big vendors, even the little guy's. Get the word out over the TV, since that seems to be where most people get their information now.

    2.kick the vendors, Dell, HP, Gateway, CompUSA etc... in the back side and get them moving on providing Linux solutions.

    3.Be truthful about the strengths and weaknesses of Linux over Windows. When people find out there is a PC out there they don't have to maintain, it does it itself, they are going to want it! No cleaning out of temp files or other nonsense. No disk defragmentation, no real need for AV other than to protect their Windows using associates. And no draconian licensing or restrictions.
    Meet those three items and Linux could very easily take 15-20% of the market. And that would be enough to break the stranglehold Microsoft has on the consumers wallet. I know, once I started to demonstrate the power and capability of the Linux PC versus that of the Windows PC, it was easy to convert people over. And I did it with very little problem. And if there was a problem, I could resolve it PDQ. The barrier is with corporations not willing to step up and take a chance that they just might win.

    Linux User 147560
    • Dell's Linux solution is not pre-installed ...

      ... and that's because their Linux vendors are not interestedin selling to consumers. If they were, Dell and the others would give consumers a choice.

      The only providers of Linux pre-installed that I have seen have deals with Linspire -- not the most popular of distros. These vendors sell mail-order only, they are usually bare-bones systems, and they are not brand name OEMs.

      That may not matter to you and I but it matters to the consumer who likes to shop at Ciruit City or Best Buys.
      M Wagner
      • Vendors prefer preinstalling Ubuntu

        "The only providers of Linux pre-installed that I have seen have deals with Linspire"

        Here's a Vendor count by distribution that I did a while back.


        24 (18.05%) Ubuntu
        20 (15.04%) Suse
        19 (14.29%) Fedora
        18 (13.53%) Linspire
        11 (8.27%) Redhat
        8 (6.02%) Debian
        8 (6.02%) Xandros
        6 (4.51%) Mandriva
        5 (3.76%) Gentoo
        4 (3.01%) Centos
        4 (3.01%) Slackware
        2 (1.50%) mephis
        1 (0.75%) ELX
        1 (0.75%) Frontier
        1 (0.75%) Icepack
        1 (0.75%) PclinuxOS


        13 (22.03%) Ubuntu
        10 (16.95%) Fedora
        10 (16.95%) Suse
        5 (8.47%) Debian
        5 (8.47%) Redhat
        4 (6.78%) Centos
        3 (5.08%) Linspire
        3 (5.08%) Mandriva
        2 (3.39%) Gentoo
        2 (3.39%) Slackware
        1 (1.69%) emperorlinux
        1 (1.69%) mandrake

        Look further down in the thread.
      • Dell & Ubuntu


        Ubuntu seems to ship pre-installed on these machines.
    • that wont work without THEFT of intellectual property

      Linux looks very interesting, even if some of the screen colours and menu options appear to be a little out of the ordinary.

      But you are missing a vital point, a point which takes some experience and depth of knowledge in the field of computers. You see, when a computer boots up, it needs to load various drivers and then load various services. This happens long before the operating system and other applications are available.

      Linux is a marvellous operating system in its own right, and even comes in several different flavours. However, as good as these flavours are, they first need Microsoft Windows to load the services prior to use.

      In Linux, the open office might be the default for editing your wordfiles, and you might prefer ubuntu brown over the grassy knoll of the windows desktop, but mark my words young man - without the windows drivers sitting below the visible surface, allowing the linus to talk to the hardware, it is without worth.

      And so, by choosing your linux as an alternative to windows on the desktop, you still need a windows licence to run this operating system through the windows drivers to talk to the hardware. Linux is only a code, it cannot perform the low level function.

      My point being, young man, that unless you intend to pirate and steal the Windows drivers and services, how is using the linux going to save money ? Well ? It seems that no linux fan can ever provide a straight answer to that question !

      May as well just stay legal, run the Windows drivers, and run Office on the desktop instead of the linus.
      • jerryleecooper misinformed!!!

        Wait a minute do you really believe that the linux kernel needs windows drivers and a windows licenses to work!!!
        Are you off your rocker proprietary drivers are not even allowed in the linux kernel or a gnu system all the drivers we have are free and open source. And what do you mean by services? What services are you talking about? You said "Linux is only a code, it cannot perform the low level function." <-- Are you for real! The linux kernel is the heart of the gnu system just as the windows kernel is the heart of there operating system. Besides the bios you cant get any lower level and the open source community has there own bios also ("OpenBIOS and LinuxBios") and no they don't need windows drivers or a licenses to be used.
        Open Office is only the default office suit in gnu/linux distros that choose to offer it as a default there are many others like gnome office, kde office etc. And i would be careful about calling people pirates someone might just sue you for declamation of character.
        You also said ("even if some of the screen colors and menu options appear to be a little out of the ordinary.") <-- What do you mean the screen colors are funny i think you need a new monitor and menu options? What do you want the community to do design them to be exactly the same as windows or macs menus?

        For everyone who read jerryleecooper post. jerryleecooper is a complete idiot when it comes to gnu/linux or free software.

        Oh and jerry Lee Cooper Linux is the operating system Kernel and the Rest of the System is called the Gnu System anything other is just open or free software. When you call the system just linux or linus <-lol your going to make people mad and there likey going to tell you to take a hike.
        Ubuntu is called ubuntu
        redhat is called redhat
        suse is called suse
        debian is called debian
        slackware is called slackware
        These are all gnu/linux based distros there not called linux or linus

        Then there are the bsd like
        firefly bsd
        The differance is they run there own bsd kernel.
        the linux kernel is not installed on these distros.

        Then you have your solaris based distros
        and they run the solaris based kernel.

        Then there is mac and the differance with mac and the rest is mac runs there own custom kernel i think its called mach and there gui toolkit for there desktop applications is different along with there filesystem layout but all in all everyone of these systems is aether a unix based operating system or a unix clone and unix was around long before windows was even thought of.

        So stop posting this stuff about gnu/linux distros need windows drivers or services or a licenses.
        Because it makes you sound stupid.
        • It should be obvious

          It is obvious that Jerry has never done an install of a Linux distro on an Intel platform. For had he done so I doubt he'd have gotten past getting the drive partitioned.
        • someone does sound stupid

          but it's not jerryleecooper. Here's a hint...co*****ps. Well it's several people at this point but he's one of them.
          Johnny Heavens
          • you don't just sound stupid

            you [b]are[/b] stupid. comtuxaps has his facts straight. You have no facts. Microsoft should demand its money back from you for being such an incompetent astroturfer.
      • what are u smoking?

        I don't have a single windows driver installed. There isn't a single instance of the ndiswrapper being used on my machine. and my video driver is a linux build directly from nvidia.
        Hrothgar - PCLinuxOS User
        • Whatever it is...

          I want some, 'cuase it sounds great to be so ignorant
      • What theft?

        There is just as much Windows in Linux as there is in the SunOS running on my Sun workstation or in Mac OS running on a Macintosh (none at all). You are correct about needing device drivers (I work on embedded code for a living), but I hate to break the news to you, Linux needs Linux device drivers to work, not Windows. And yes, I've written Linux device drivers to run specific hardware. They compile under the Gnu C compiler for use with the Linux kernel, and are distributed legally under the Gnu Public License (which, by the way, prohibits having any closed-source Windows components).