Linux-Windows gap to remain for five years

Don't expect mainstream adoption for Linux five years down the road, even if Linux operating systems become more user-friendly, say analysts.

The Linux desktop experience is now closer to the Windows environment than before, but the gap in mainstream adoption for the open source OS will not close anytime soon, says an industry analyst.

Laurent Lachal, U.K.-based senior analyst at IT advisory firm Ovum, said inconsistencies across Linux distributions still stand in the way of wider user uptake.

"For one, Linux has two main GUIs (graphical user interfaces), KDE and Gnome. Some see that as choice, but overall it confuses the market," Lachal told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview. He added that each GUI is further tweaked for different distributions, further compounding the disparity.

Different distributions also have different ways of allowing users to perform tasks, such as terminal commands.

The netbook example displays the level of inertia that Linux has to fight.
Laurent Lachal, Ovum

Some distributions also try to mimic Windows as closely as possible in order to entice Windows users to migrate, but has often resulted in only "good enough" experience for "basic" enterprise tasks.

Lachal said: "Usability is not a problem with Linux, but the issue lies with application support."

John Brand, Hydrasight's research director, said in an e-mail interview such support issues have plagued Linux, and still do. "The majority of organizations still find application incompatibility and lifecycle management an issue for Linux-based desktops," he said.

Linux can be suitable for "light use" by some members of a company, but this mix-and-match approach where both Windows and Linux platforms are deployed is not typically considered cost-effective, Brand explained.

And while Linux desktop projects may rate well with users during pilot deployments, the "complexities of having a mixed environment generally dilutes any benefits Linux may otherwise provide", he added.

He highlighted Microsoft's integration with its other office products that increases the reliance on the Windows OS. The most significant example of this has been Microsoft SharePoint, he said.

"We see that [SharePoint] adoption has become widespread and often entrenched as a core part of the enterprise IT infrastructure," Brand said. Competing software such as open source document management product Alfresco, has not yet managed to appeal to users to a similar degree, he noted.

Furthermore, device support is still an issue, he said. "Without the commercial drivers for open source, market momentum is variable at best," he added.

However, Laurent disagreed. He said lack of driver support "is still an issue, but overall it has been solved".

Greg Kroah-Hartman, Novell programmer and Linux Driver Project lead, noted in an earlier interview with ZDNet Asia, that the "problem" of device makers resisting the Linux community is not an issue. He said the coders at the Linux Driver Project were getting requests to make Linux-compatible drivers for hardware "all the time", suggesting growing adoption of Linux OSes among enterprises.

The netbook example
The biggest gap Linux needs to close is the maturity of its channel, said Ovum's Laurent, adding that the platform lacks vendor support and market visibility.

Although Linux had the headstart in the netbook game--with Asus supporting the open source platform--Microsoft eventually overtook the lead because "the market was not ready".

Laurent said: "Sales people were not trained and did not understand [Linux] because the sales channels were not experienced. Thus, they could not sell [Linux-based] netbooks properly and customers were unhappy."

Furthermore, Microsoft's decision to extend Windows XP's lifespan for the netbook market was sufficient to sway users back into the familiar Windows camp, indicating that consumers tend to prefer what they are most familiar with, he said.

"The netbook example displays the level of inertia that Linux has to fight," he noted, adding that because of this inertia, Linux will remain a "minority" OS for another five years.

"It will be used more extensively in the enterprise but will not dramatically challenge Microsoft or Apple in the consumer space," he said.