Why Linux is ready for the desktop today

Novell's Kevin Foster tells why he thinks that Linux is ready to take over the desktop.
Written by Kevin Foster, Contributor
Commentary--Over the years, the question “is Linux ready for the desktop” has been raised time and time again, and countless articles have been written about the strengths and weaknesses of this operating system. While desktop Linux adoption has yet to go completely mainstream, recent indicators show that a major change is underfoot.

Linux is primed to take the PC market by storm as more enterprises recognize the value proposition that Linux offers business - more flexibility, customization and affordable options. We're also seeing hardware manufacturers expanding their Linux offerings on a range of devices. The recent roll out of the new ProBook series of HP notebook devices available with a fully supported Linux operating system is one example and these options is only expected to grow.

Until recently commercial desktop Linux deployments had mostly been limited to single task applications, such as cash registers or transactional workstations. But Linux offerings are now mature enough and ideal for a wide range of workers. In fact, power users all the way down to users who perform such basic tasks as word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, email and web browsing are benefiting from a Linux operating system. In addition, due to the current economic environment, enterprises are required to rationalize the cost of their server and desktop software and thus they are reevaluating their use of costly proprietary software. As customers seek fully functional operating systems and applications at a fraction of the price of Windows or Mac, Linux has become a truly attractive alternative.

So the question remains: is Linux ready for the enterprise desktop today? A steady increase in user adoption and key developments over the past six to 12 months suggest that the answer is yes:

  • Open source applications reach maturity
    First, a number of open source applications have become more technical mature, and a lot more user-friendly over time. One example of this is OpenOffice.org, which has reached new levels of sophistication that allow it to be used by almost any worker in the enterprise without losing a single degree of productivity.

In addition, open source software adoption is growing. According to a recent CIO.com survey of IT and business executives and managers, more than 50 percent of enterprises are already using open-source applications. Interestingly enough, a number of public sector organizations such as government and education are also beginning to migrate away from proprietary standards and are embracing open standards such as Open Office XML and the Open Document format, for storing and sharing content. Because these open source applications are based on open standards, these organizations are helping to drive the adoption of Linux forward.

  • Linux preloads on PCs increase
    Another key trend impacting the growth of enterprise desktop Linux can be found within the hardware ecosystem. Several key OEM vendors, such as HP, Lenovo and Dell, are preloading desktop Linux, and more importantly, they are preloading desktop Linux at a much faster rate than ever before. What we’re hearing from several vendors in the industry is that they want to be able to offer preloaded Linux systems at the same time as proprietary Windows systems. That’s really an inflection point in the industry - Linux is no longer the laggard.
  • In fact, industry research shows that Linux, as an operating system, is growing. Gartner predicts the install base for Linux users will be 34 million by 2012. This growth is very appealing to many hardware vendors, who are hearing from their customers that they want choice and flexibility.

    Customers don’t want to be locked into using Windows – they clearly want a more cost-compelling solution, and that’s something that hardware vendors are increasingly offering on a wide range of devices.

  • Netbook and Thin Client growth leads to Linux surge
    New form factors have emerged recently which make desktop Linux a logical choice. Netbook sales, for example, have really taken off in the past 12-18 months and offer a bright spot on the computing landscape, as consumers are fleeing from higher-end products to these low-cost devices.
  • In many cases, enterprises are using netbooks as a companion form factor to their existing desktops. Due to its small footprint, netbooks have become ideal for road warriors as well as for those who simply want a light-weight, secondary PC.

    As a result, we’re seeing Linux adoption on the netbook from vendors such as ASUS, MSI, HP and Lenovo. In reality, the low cost of the netbook, combined with the small footprint of desktop Linux, makes this an ideal choice to meet the needs of the enterprise user.

    Other form factors include thin clients. Where customers don’t need a fully loaded Windows operating system; they can simply use a slimmed down thin client Linux operating system and be just as productive at a fraction of the cost. The growth of these new and right-sized devices are just another reason desktop Linux is becoming more attractive to the enterprise.

  • Security issues plague Windows
    Following several high-profile, headline-grabbing data breaches in recent months such as TJX, Monster and Société Générale, organizations are beginning to look closer at their security systems and question the safety of using Windows on desktops. The Windows operating system comes complete with plenty of security holes and Microsoft is slow to release patches for these holes. In addition, viruses on Windows are still very much alive and Windows continues to be their number one target.
  • While patches and virus alerts are routine for many organizations, the increasing frequency and severity of the threats have put pressure on IT departments to implement better security practices and standards. Take, for example, the recent Conficker virus, a Windows-only virus that has infected roughly seven to 10 million PCs to date. Experts are still trying to understand its impact and what kind of downstream implications it will have in terms of clogging network traffic. As a result, IT is starting to question if there aren't more secure options that reduce this risk. That option is Linux, which, while not necessarily immune to attack, is certainly less susceptible and by design can quickly detect and correct potential threats, reducing costs and headaches for the IT department.

  • Computing heads for the clouds
    Yet another key trend affecting desktop Linux adoption is the resurgence of web-based software systems. We know many organizations are moving toward the cloud, or are transitioning off of Microsoft Office in favor of applications such as Google Docs, Google Apps, Zoho, and so on. In essence, enterprises are beginning to ask themselves if they really need a fully-blown Microsoft operating system, with all the bells and whistles, to access applications in the cloud, or if they can simply get a slimmed down, less expensive solution to do the work that they need to do. Again, if all you need is a browser, then you definitely don’t need a Microsoft operating system and the associated licensing costs. Here's another place that a more cost-effective, flexible Linux system gives you everything you need and protects your bottom-line.
  • Conclusion
    Linux is ready for the desktop – of that, there is no doubt. The ever increasing number of users adopting Linux is testament to its accessibility. According to a March 2008 IDC survey, about two-thirds of IT executives stated that they are "actively evaluating" or "accelerating adoption" of Linux on the desktop.

    Furthermore, the report suggested that economic downturns have a tendency to accelerate emerging technologies and punish solutions that are not cost competitive. With cost-cutting pressures expected to continue into the post-recessionary phase, we can expect desktop Linux adoption to only increase. From economic arguments to innovative enhancements, Linux on the desktop clearly offers a compelling value proposition to customers now more than ever.

    Kevin Foster is Senior Product Marketing Manager at Novell, a leading supplier of both open source and proprietary software solutions.

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