Linux vendors hope to ride PC upgrade wave

Gartner is predicting that 220 million desktop PCs will be replaced over the next two years, a prospect that has Linux vendors licking their lips

Linux vendors are salivating at the prospect of taking market share away from Microsoft's Windows in the PC desktop market as enterprises embark on the biggest desktop refresh since Y2K.

On Tuesday, Gartner published a report predicting that over the next two years 220 million corporate desktop PCs will be replaced: 100 million in 2004 and 120 million in 2005. The company said this will be the largest hardware refresh since Y2K.

Linux's share of the desktop PC market is growing, but is still a small fraction in comparison to the 90 percent-plus market share enjoyed by Windows. However, the use of Linux in enterprise servers has grown dramatically over the past few years, which gives Linux vendors hope that a massive refresh in desktop hardware could trigger a small, but significant, move away from Microsoft's Windows.

George Shiffler, principal analyst at Gartner's client platforms research division, said that vendors have been anticipating an increase in demand as enterprises refresh the computers they bought to avoid any Y2K problems. Shiffler said the mass desktop refresh is definitely underway and is partly being driven by the need for an updated operating system.

"Many, if not most, of these PCs are using older Windows operating systems that are no longer supported or are about to lose full technical support. Expiring OS support will play a significant role in driving PC replacements going forward," Shiffler said.

Matthew Szulik, chief executive of Linux vendor Red Hat, launched the company's enterprise desktop operating system earlier this month and emphasised that a push into the corporate desktop would be achieved slowly but surely as old PCs were replaced with new models.

"We're not so naive as to believe that the marketplace will wake up tomorrow and want to rip out 15 years' worth of Windows implementations. Much of it will be driven by a very large refresh and Red Hat's Linux client will be an attractive candidate," Szulik said.

Szulik said that because companies are finding the cost of supporting and managing Windows PCs "prohibitive", Red Hat is in a position to provide "a very good alternative" to customers using a Windows 95, Windows 98 and Microsoft Exchange environment.

"As we have seen on the server side, the cost of moving towards an open-source platform -- including a Mozilla browser and Star Office -- has cost benefits of 30 or 40 percent," Szulik said.

The most important players in the market for desktop operating systems are the PC manufacturers such as Dell and HP. For Linux's share of the market to really grow, these OEMs will need to start promoting computers that have Linux pre-installed, according to RedMonk's principal analyst James Governor.

"If they want to take a sizable proportion of this huge desktop refresh, it is going to be in the context of OEM deals," Governor said.