Why Linux will not displace Windows

Many schools have turned to the Linux desktop and to thin clients to try to address critically low funding levels. Those with greater Education IT expertise are utilizing needs-based hybrid solutions -- yet Windows continue to dominate the desktop. What will it take for that to change?
Written by Marc Wagner, Contributor

I firmly believe that, all else being equal, the differences between the Windows desktop, the Macintosh desktop, and the Linux desktop are negligible.  With the proper applications, all three platforms will be capable of providing a satisfactory experience for any user.  All three platforms have both free and commercial products available for personal productivity, web browsing, and basic multimedia.  Yet, Windows dominates.  Why?  After all ...

  • Apple was first to mass market a fully-functional GUI (though invented at Xerox PARC). 
  • Apple was the first to pre-install their operating system onto their workstations.
  • Apple was first to recognize the value of personal computing to education.

Despite this, Apple's presence does not reach even ten percent of the World's desktops -- in Education IT or in the mass market.  The reasons are many but up-front costs certainly play a role.  Nevertheless, Apple is not the subject of this article ... I want to talk about Linux! 

In a feature-rich desktop configuration, Linux runs on the same hardware as Windows with comparable performance.  The 'cost' of Linux ranges anywhere from ZERO dollars (for the geeks among us) to $299 per seat (for a one-year RHEL-WS subscription -- with 12x5 technical support and 4-hour response.)  For this, the user has complete control over their system configuration.  Yet, with its fixed-price, fixed support, fixed-configuration model, Windows still dominates.  Why?

I just finished reading Vista? No thanks, school says, converts Windows boxes to Linux and I was struck by a couple of things.  Looking to reduce annual costs, the Windsor, CA School District has adopted a variety of solutions centered around workstations running SUSE Linux and Wyse Linux thin-client terminals.  (They use a few Windows and Macintosh workstations but apparently not many.)  Quoting Heather Carver, the district's IT administrator:

"One key to all this is that we're using Citrix (as the bridge) to run Windows apps on thin-client terminals — which the adults are most used to — on the new SUSE Linux 10.1 servers," Carver told DesktopLinux.com. "The kids, well, they adjust to new operating systems and applications very quickly, so a changeover to Linux is no big deal."

Her conclusions are not at all surprising but she ignores another reason why Citrix is needed:

  • most educational software is ported to Windows (and/or Macintosh), not Linux
  • the number of Windows-based titles accompanying textbooks is growing

In short, the absence of high-performance commercial desktop software hurts Linux.  Of course, application availability is a 'chicken or the egg' kind of problem.  Without a critical mass of desktop Linux workstations in people's homes or on their desks at work, there is no incentive to write (or even to port) specialized applications for/to Linux. 

This argument sounds fine until you realize that between OpenOffice and a number of Web browsers for Linux, and a variety of free (or nearly free) applications Linux truly can meet 90% of the needs of those folks who buy Windows today instead of buying Linux.  It's the other 10% though that makes the difference.  (For instance, neither Quicken or TurboTax have Linux ports and neither does iTunes -- those are not 'showstoppers' for Education IT but they certainly are for me as a consumer.)

Last week, David Berlind posed a question about the potential threat to Microsoft of the laptop being developed by the OLPC (One Laptop per Child) foundation -- targeting school children in the developing world.  (See Image Gallery: Will Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child be a problem for Microsoft?)  David's point is that this 'little laptop that could' will run a ROM-based Linux configuration.  The question applies equally well to the schoolchildren of Windsor, CA who will be running Linux on thin clients. 

The rationale, of course, is that whatever you were exposed to in school, you are likely going to want when you get out of school.  This is certainly the rationale that Microsoft uses when they grant steep discounts to K-12 public schools all over America -- and when they establish enterprise license agreements with large research universities. 

So will the strategy work?  Will these school children clamor for Linux when they get to college?  Will they buy a Linux computer when they graduate from college?  Well, it remains to be seen but, unless Linux vendors get a clue, and soon, I think not. 

Why not? 

Because for Linux, its greatest asset in the machine room -- the flexibility of its configuration -- is it's greatest liability in the consumer space.  Consumers don't want or need to worry about configuring their computers -- nor would most of them even know how. 

The consumer wants a computer which is functional and inexpensive (leaving Macintosh out of the picture for many.)  They have a limited number of needs -- write a document, prepare a spreadsheet, send an e-mail, listen to music, share photos.  But, they also have limited knowledge.

If a consumer could walk into their favorite electronics retailer and see a computer running desktop SUSE Linux (or any Linux distribution, for that matter) sitting next to an equally-robust Windows machine at the same price point, and if they could take it home and plug it in a just use it, like they can with Windows, there is no reason to believe that Linux would not be as well received as Windows. 

Unfortunately, this is not a choice most people have.  The fault does not lie with Microsoft.  Nor with Dell or its competitors.  The fault lies squarely at the feet of Linux vendors who do not wish to compete against Microsoft for the commodity desktop workstation market. 

Until they figure out that they MUST compete for the consumer desktop to make a serious dent in Microsoft's dominance of the desktop, they won't make a dent -- and no amount of wishing will make it so.

It doesn't matter how great that OLPC laptop turns out to be, or how much those K-12 kids like those Linux clients if they (or their parents) cannot go to the box-store down the street and buy the computer of their choice with Linux pre-installed.   

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