Is it possible that one day soon, when you boot up your PC, the Linux penguin will walk across the screen instead of the familiar red, green, blue and yellow boxes of Windows? Well, it's definitely in the works, but you shouldn't expect it overnight if you live in the U.S. or Europe.
IT vendors are making a concerted effort to bring Linux to the desktop. An announcement made jointly by Novell and HP on March 24 shows that Linux isn't just for servers anymore. The two companies announced "a joint agreement to certify and support the Novell SuSE Linux operating system on select HP Compaq client systems." What makes this announcement significant in Linux's march toward general acceptance is that it pertains to desktop and notebook PCs, not just technical computing workstations where Linux has already had a presence.
While I wouldn't call this a big threat to Windows on the desktop yet, it should serve as a wake-up call to Microsoft. IDC analyst Roger Kay quipped that the announcement "will give Microsoft the impression that it's actually in a competitive market. It would act like a competitor rather than a monopoly and use price as a competitive tool."
Martin Fink, vice president of Linux within HP's Enterprise Servers and Storage group says the devices aren't intended to be replacement boxes for Windows-based PCs. "Right now, the vast majority of our Linux desktop installations are in Asia and other emerging markets, where companies are installing their first PCs," he says. In markets such as North America and the European Union, where Windows PCs are already commonplace, the new Linux desktops are primarily used for specialized applications, especially as thin client deployments.
HP and Novell claim they are only responding to corporate customers' demands. Customers who have already deployed Linux servers are looking for a complete networked environment with Linux at both the client and server levels. Novell should have a distinct advantage for this market as it combines the best of its SuSE operating system with its Ximian desktop environment for an all-Linux desktop-to-server solution.
As further evidence of Linux gaining ground on the desktop, IBM has confirmed its Open Desktop project, whereby the company intends to convert as many of its 300,000 employees as possible to Linux-based PCs by 2005. You can bet that IBM Global Services will be using itself as a guinea pig to learn how to help its customers migrate their Windows PCs to Linux. I'd expect to see this as a full service offering in a year or so.
The open source movement is gaining momentum worldwide. At least a dozen countries are seriously looking at standardizing on Linux on the desktop. At the 2003 Asian Economic Summit, a trio of countries - Japan, China and South Korea - announced they plan to develop an "inexpensive and trustworthy open source operating system" that would be based on a system such as Linux. In addition, the government of Thailand has created great demand for Linux-based PCs. Calling them "the People's PCs," the Thai government hopes to deliver up to a million PCs to its citizens by the end of 2004. The Brazilian government, too, is spearheading a campaign for low cost open source software on all its new computers.
China represents a vast opportunity to PC vendors. Dell, IBM and HP, as well as IT products provider Legend Group, have all targeted the Chinese market with Linux-based PCs. HP was first to this market in mid-March, using a Linux distribution from TurboLinux and the OpenOffice.org 1.1 suite of office productivity software. The other vendors will soon follow.
For many of these countries, and enterprise customers as well, the issue is cost. The "Wall Street Journal" estimates that a Windows operating system on a PC represents about 10% of the cost of the device. Typical desktop productivity software adds significantly more to the overall cost. If open source software can lower those costs even a little, customers will be clamoring for the complete solution.
I anxiously anticipate the day that IBM releases a white paper about the internal costs it shaved by moving to Linux and open source applications for its own desktop PCs. It just might be an eye-opener for us all.
Linda Musthaler is vice president of Currid & Company. You can write to her at mailto:Linda.Musthaler@currid.com
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