Who is killing desktop Linux?

Last week my colleague, Chris Dawson, wrote Will Vista kill Linux for Ed Tech? and he did a really nice job of it.
Written by Marc Wagner on

Last week my colleague, Chris Dawson, wrote Will Vista kill Linux for Ed Tech? and he did a really nice job of it.  Of course, he wasn't talking about Linux as an OS, or as a subject of serious study or utility.  What Chris was referring to was Linux as a desktop computing environment geared toward personal productivity.  Chris reminds us:

Indiana claims to be saving about 1 million dollars by rolling out Linux at 25 high schools (see Million Dollar Linux), but we have yet to see any information on end user experiences, long-term support and training issues, and, most importantly, total cost of ownership. 

And then Chris shares his own experience:

I even gave Linux a shot, attempting to save Windows licensing costs on a bunch of donated computers, but ran into enough hurdles that $70/machine (roughly what we're paying per seat for XP pro) seemed a small price to pay for easy network integration and minimal training for students and teachers (see Back to Windows?).

I've long preached that life-cycle funding is a critical component of any IT infrastructure and each new project needs to be developed with TCO (total cost of ownership) in mind. 

Before I go any further, it's worth noting that things are different in higher education.  We still face the challenges of limited funding but projects are more compartmentalized -- and are usually amortized over a three-to-five year time horizon.  Nothing is open-ended and budgets are not built upon one-time funding.  Instead, one-time funding is used to establish projects which are then provided a budget for ongoing 'care and feeding'. 

Despite the opinion of many readers, in such an environment purchasing decisions are not based on "inertia" -- each new project has its own set of requirements.  Most of those project requirements can be performed equally well by UNIX, Linux, or Windows.  Some require Windows interoperability but many don't.  The deciding factor is most often total cost of ownership. 

Given these facts, why isn't desktop Linux a serious contender?  And don't tell me it is... 

At my university, my group is by far the largest single provider of student computing workstations.  Of those workstations that we own or support, 3000 are running Windows, maybe 450 are running MacOSX, another 50 or so are running some (other) flavor of UNIX/Linux.  That's 14 percent non-Windows.   

These numbers have certainly changed over time -- based upon shifting demand from our students and our faculty, but the shift has always been away from Macintosh -- and especially from UNIX/Linux as more and more applications have been ported to Windows.  (At one time we were maybe 40% non-Windows.)

Admittedly, we are one of the smaller providers of UNIX/Linux workstations at the university but the total number of such workstations on campus is in the hundreds while the total number of Windows workstations most certainly exceeds 10,000!

So why ISN'T desktop Linux a serious contender?

The answer to this question may be less clear in the consumer space than it is in education since the vast majority of consumers are interested only in e-mail, surfing the web, word processing, and spreadsheets -- and we all know that Linux can do all these things for absolutely no cost.  Right?

Well, not quite ...

While one can download and install Linux and OpenOffice for free, you need to know HOW to do that.  Few consumers are daring enough to do any thing more than stick a CD in a drive click OK when asked in order to install new software. 

Unless you have the bandwidth and the patience to download hundreds of megabytes of data and the knowledge to burn bootable CDs, a copy of Linux will cost you $60.  Granted, that's for a feature-rich release of Linspire (http://linspire.com/) and includes an office suite but Linux is NOT 'free' unless you have the knowledge and the patience to install it from scratch.  Very few consumers are even willing to do that with Windows. 

What about availability?

Today, the consumer can walk into almost any retailer selling electronics and buy a computer with Windows (and usually MS Office) pre-installed -- no muss, no fuss.  Finding an Apple retailer is much more of a challenge but at least the consumer knows about Apple and can find a retailer if they are looking.  How easy is it to find a Linux workstation retailer? 

To be sure, you can find a handful of mostly-unheard-of computer vendors selling entry-level systems running Linspire but what about SuSe or RedHat?  They've got great software but where are their Linux desktop hardware offerings?  Sure, Dell sells RedHat servers and the big guys like IBM and Sun will sell you Linux desktops if you ask for them but that doesn't cut it for the consumer.

Enter Ed tech ...

As Chris has alluded to, his time is worth more to him (and his employer, the school district) than the cost savings of him downloading a free (and unsupported) Linux distribution -- making it work on a variety of, often outdated, hardware, and then distributing it across multiple machines with varying configurations. 

Window's ability to detect most major brands of hardware, and the willingness of most major component makers to provide Windows drivers greatly simplifies his job of installing Windows on as many machines as he wants.

And what about specialized software?  In an educational setting (as in a business or industrial setting), dependence upon specific applications software plays a large role in the TCO equation.  If introducing a new OS (or supporting multiple operating systems side-by-side), one must assess the costs associated with cross-platform compatibility.  Most specialized software is available for both Windows and Macintosh -- and many UNIX/Linux titles are easily ported (by vendors) to Windows (and now Macintosh) but the transition from Windows (or Macintosh) to UNIX/Linux is far less straightforward. 

So who is killing desktop Linux?

The answer is clear.  It's the Linux vendors who are 'killing desktop Linux' -- or more accurately, letting the Linux desktop die a slow agonizing death.

Some would argue that Microsoft is keeping Linux off the desktop but how could Microsoft possibly stop IBM or Sun Microsystems, Novell or RedHat from making Linux on the Desktop as easy to buy from Dell or HP as Microsoft Windows?  They simply couldn't! 

HP even certifies it's hardware on a number of Linux distributions but do they sell hardware with Linux pre-loaded?  Not that I can find! 

Microsoft gained market dominance by offering Windows preloaded on every commodity OEM workstation it could from 1987 forward.  (It all started with Windows 2.11 on the IBM PS/2 line of workstations.) 

Today, Windows is competing for the lucrative machine-room market.  UNIX is fighting on two fronts to keep both Windows and Linux at bay.  In this environment, where TCO rules, the competition is fierce.  So why not on the desktop? 

It's not because Windows is technically superior to the UNIX/Linux.  It isn't!

It's simpler than that.  The bottom line is that there is not enough profit margin in the commodity desktop market for any of the front line Linux vendors to pursue it.  Instead, the big UNIX/Linux vendors have decided to concede the commodity desktop to Windows.  (Just as Apple conceded that market to Microsoft in the 1990's.)

The lone exception is Linspire, a small company who has done remarkably well in developing a consumer-oriented product and made it easily available on-line.  But once again, Linspire suffers from not having a first-tier OEM hawking Linspire workstations.  Even Novell, who has gone out of its way to position NLD and SuSe LED as desktop Linux solutions has done little to market them. 

No matter what the Linux aficionados (some call them zealots) might want, until desktop Linux is available pre-loaded on a variety of workstations at [insert your favorite electronics retailer here], Linux is not going to found on many of our dining room tables or in many of our schools. 


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