Red Hat CEO thinks the desktop is becoming a legacy application

In five years, Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst sees the traditional desktop becoming obsolete.

Vancouver, British Columbia—A running joke at this years LinuxCon is that “X is the year of the Linux desktop.” Jim Zemlin, head of the conference's sponsoring organization, The Linux Foundation, started it with his keynote in noting how often he'd made that prediction and how often he's been wrong. The current prediction, which I believe Linus Torvalds made last night was : “2031! The year of the Linux desktop.” Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, has another year in mind for the Linux desktop though: Never. Oh, and the Windows and Mac desktops? Get ready to say good-bye to them soon.

In an interview with me, Whitehurst told me that he believes that the “Fat client operating system [the traditional desktop] is becoming a legacy application.” What he meant by that isn't that your desktops are suddenly going to vaporize into puffs of smoke in 2016 like from some really lame disaster movie. No, his point is that the cost of maintaining and securing a desktop operating system is growing increasingly higher.

So, what he sees happening is that everyone, and it's not just Linux, “writing their functionality for the back engine. Why would anyone with all the different platforms—smartphones, tablets, etc.---and the costs of securing all of them want to spend money on that? The cost to manage and secure a fat client is ridiculous.”

So what will replace it? He sees several possibilities. In the short run, for businesses he sees Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) becoming increasing more important. Here, he sees Citrix, which has long provided Windows desktops via its VDI platform, continuing to be the major player. "It's Citrix's market to lose,” said Whitehurst.

Red Hat will also play a role in VDI as well. In 2012, Red Hat will be reintroducing ts Simple Protocol for Independent Computing Environments (SPICE)-based VDI. On the server side, SPICE depends on KVM (Kernel Virtual Machine) for its horsepower. Don't think though that Red Hat plans on head-to-head competition with Citrix for tomorrow's VDI desktop. They don't.

Instead, Whitehurst said, “SPICE will be part of a packaged offering for those who want it.” He sees its market as being primary users who are already using Linux desktops, terminal applications, or Linux-based thin-clients. It's a great offerings, but as for using it to run say “20,000 Windows desktops?" No, that's Citrix's market.”

So what kind of desktop does he see the enterprise user moving to, since after all, there's only so much you can do with any tablet or smartphone? Whitehurst thinks it will probably be based on a KVM-based cloud and using a Web browser as its primary interface.

He added that he thinks Google's Chrome operating system looks promising and that he plans on trying out the Samung Chromebook himself sometime soon. You see, unlike many CEOs,Whitehurst is also a techie. His first exposure to Linux was running Slackware on his own. Today, he runs Fedora 15 as his desktop. He knows Linux. As Red Hat gets ready to become the first billion-dollar open-source company, it's clear he knows business. He knows the desktop. If he says the fat-client desktop is getting ready to become yesterday's news, I'm inclined to listen to him.

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