The initial excitement about Linux as an alternative to Windows on the desktop has long since cooled, and the most encouraging industry projections don't show the open-source operating system taking off on desktops for several years. But a funny thing has happened over the past year: large organisations have actually started making commitments to Linux desktops, in a trend that is likely to continue in 2004 and pick up steam in the future.
This trend may yet be in its infancy, but industry analysts say it could eventually open up the choices available to businesses, and even consumers.
The hype around desktop Linux mirrored the dot-com boom in the late 1990s, and tailed off about as quickly. But at that time, the idea that Linux distributions such as Red Hat, Mandrake Linux or SuSE Linux could be used on the desktop was mainly hypothetical. The software was available at retail for anyone who wanted it, but those users appeared to be few and far between.
Since then, it's become possible to find actual significant examples of companies and government bodies that have chosen to switch desktops from Windows to Linux, and the operating system is making a small but perceptible impact on desktop OS market share. IDC says Linux's desktop market share has nearly doubled in the past three years, from 1.5 percent at the end of 2000 to 2.8 percent now. Linux is poised to surpass Apple's 2.9 percent of the market, as projected a year ago.
IDC says it is predicting mainstream acceptance of Linux on servers by 2005, but believes desktop acceptance will "only trail slightly" behind servers.
Enthusiasm for Linux on the desktop made significant advances in 2003, particularly among IT giants that had previously backed Linux, but mainly on servers. IBM, Red Hat and HP all made significant desktop-Linux moves in 2003. Industry rumours have suggested IBM, Dell, HP and others may be on the point of rolling out broad-based technical support programmes for Linux desktops, which would make the option more appealing for corporations.
Sun Microsystems recently introduced a low-cost Linux-based desktop operating system aimed at corporations, called Java Desktop System (JDS). SuSE Linux introduced an enterprise-centric desktop solution in mid-2003.
Novell is new to the Linux game but has jumped in with both feet, buying SuSE and Ximian, which produces enterprise desktop software for Linux. The company is planning to integrate more tightly SuSE's operating system with Ximian's software, and says it will more than double the number of engineers working on the Ximian Desktop, as well as push improvements in the Gnome desktop environment, the OpenOffice.org productivity suite and the Mozilla browser.
The new products were paired with encouraging customer wins, with a particular focus on the public sector. SuSE benefited from a high-profile March decision by the City of Munich to replace thousands of its out-of-date Windows desktops with Linux.
UK Public-spending watchdog the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) signed a framework pricing agreement for Sun's Java Desktop, with a series of trials to begin in the New Year. In December, Sun announced a deal under which the China Standard Software (CSSC), a consortium of companies supported by the Chinese government, will use Java Desktop.
China's State Council has mandated that ministries buy Chinese-produced software in the next upgrade cycle, and is pushing local Linux distribution Red Flag. In Spain, the government of the region of Extremadura installed 200,000 Linux desktop PCs, using a distribution that incorporates the regional dialect.
Government adoption could be hastened when distributions such as Red Hat and SuSE achieve several certifications required by many government bodies. Red Hat's enterprise product recently achieved broad certification under the Linux Standards Base, designed to keep Linux from fragmenting, and is near completion of a basic certification under the Common Criteria scheme, something achieved by SuSE in August.
As yet, this activity is only making a small impact on the overall desktop market, and there is still plenty of scepticism around. At October's UK Tech Summit, for example, a panel of the UK's most influential chief information officers expressed doubt over the use of open-source software for mission-critical applications generally, put off by a perceived lack of accountability.
A September survey by Gartner suggested that Linux desktops would not save money for most enterprises, saying a migration from Windows to Linux would only make sense in cases where the PCs would only be needed for fixed-function or low-function applications, such as data entry, call centre or bank teller automation. "Knowledge workers use PCs to run diverse combinations of applications," says Gartner vice president David Smith. "For those users, migration costs will be very high because all Windows applications must be replaced or rewritten."