It's flat-out refreshing to speculate on how Linux will fare. Just pull out the Linux scrapbook of press clippings from the past few years and you can see how the OS has steadily eroded skepticism and gained acceptance. Was Linux just a dot-com boom flash-in-the-pan fad that wouldn't survive the bust? Nope. Sure it's great for light server duty, but could it meet the demands of the big-iron boxes? Why not?
The continuing drama of Linux's viability as an OS alternative has been played out with a fair share of theatrics--good versus evil, closed versus open, the privileged few versus the people. It's all good, basic gut-reaction stuff, with a surprising amount of passion thrown in--an unusual display of emotion for an industry accustomed to more matter-of-fact bits-and-bytes affairs.
You can credit the more militant factions of the Linux camp for much of the breast beating and histrionics, but the Linux acolytes alone have not sown the seeds of discord--Microsoft's adamant refusal to acknowledge anything good in Linux or open source development efforts has helped nurture those seeds. And now Linux vendors appear more ready than ever to reap the benefits. Microsoft, for its part, has shown a certain perverse deftness in playing the heavy, with policies and prices have done a good job of ticking off tech buyers and inciting them to look for alternatives.
That, perhaps, is the most interesting point to consider in the Linux-on-the-desktop debate. The most compelling factor might not be the preponderance of solid Linux alternatives, but rather Microsoft refusing to take off its 900-pound gorilla suit and play nice for a change. In short, people are beginning to actively seek out alternatives now and, in some cases, would be willing to make sacrifices, if necessary, to get out from under Microsoft's thumb.
But let's be careful not to overstate the impact of recent events. While Linux is causing definite tremors in the desktop market-which I'm sure they're being felt in Redmond-it's a bit premature to call it a groundswell. Still, it would require some extreme myopia for Microsoft to overlook recent headlines about its customers' dissatisfaction with its new licensing plans. And the malaise has an international flavor, with China looking for Microsoft alternatives and Norway canceling its exclusive contracts. Wal-Mart might not be a sovereign power, but economically it's in a universe by itself and today the mega-retailer is stocking its shelves with Linux PCs.
Two ZDNet polls confirm the rising tide of discontent.
A poll conducted by ZDNet Australia found that 55 percent of the surveyed IT managers were considering switching from Microsoft products, with another 15 percent still checking out just what effects Microsoft's new licensing scheme would have on their operations.
Back in April--when the Linux on the desktop ball was just beginning to roll--Tech Update ran an online poll that asked our readers if their companies would switch from Windows to Linux if the applications they used could run on the alternative OS.
Would your company switch its desktop PCs from Windows to Linux if Windows apps could run on Linux? Of the more than 15,000 respondents, 58 percent said they'd make the switch immediately; another 25 percent said they'd consider dumping Windows in favor of Linux within a year.
Neither poll claimed to be a scientific sampling, but such overwhelming results can't be overlooked. If you haven't already given serious consideration to Linux as a desktop OS, start right now.
In a previous Tech Update special report, we looked at products that let you run native Windows apps like Microsoft Office on Linux. I came to the conclusion that it seemed hardly worth the bother to add another layer between your OS and your app. I still think that's true, and I still don't think your company should settle for a solution that, at best, addresses only part of the issue. Now, all the evidence indicates that you should not only consider replacing your desktop OS, but consider application alternatives as well.
You could start building your prototype Linux desktop with any of the popular OS packages--Red Hat, SuSE, etc.--add StarOffice or WordPerfect Office 2000 to handle most business productivity applications, Ximian or a similar desktop environment, Mozilla or Opera for Web browsing, and Ximian's Connector software to link Evolution, the company's Outlook replacement, to your Exchange server.
Odds are this configuration will work fine for many of your current desktop installations. But don't take a chance--set up a pilot project in which you set up a controlled test environment. The number of desktops in the pilot is really up to you, depending on the size of your organization, but don't make it too big to handle or too small to reap meaningful results. Try to keep your pilot group contained--that is, a single department or discreet group within a department. Of course, you'll need to survey their current work environment and application needs to ensure that the replacement system will meet their requirements.
Not too long ago, even key Linux vendors had all but given up hope of capturing corporate desktops, but times have changed. Red Hat has renewed its interest in the desktop, and Sun is finally backing up its StarOffice suite with a genuine Linux desktop effort. And those two are not alone: IBM, HP, and others seem similarly enthralled with Linux.
Linux already dominates in some server areas, and is poised to push into others. For the desktop, you should proceed with due caution, but right now it simply can't be ignored.