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Is Linux Dead for the Desktop?

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Credit: Louis Tim Larsen

For executives in charge of desktop deployments in a large company, Linux OS was once hailed as a savior for corporate end users. With incredibly low pricing – free, with fee-based support plans, for example – distributions such as Ubuntu Desktop and SUSE Linux Enterprise offered a "good enough" user interface, along with plenty of powerful apps and a rich browser.

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A few years ago, both Dell and HP jumped on the bandwagon; today, they still offer "developer" and "workstation" models that come pre-loaded with a Linux install. Plus, anyone who follows the Linux market knows that Google has reimagined Linux as a user-friendly tablet interface (the wildly popular Android OS) and a browser-only desktop variant (Chrome OS). Linux also shows up on countless connected home gadgets, fitness trackers, watches and other low-cost devices, mostly because OS costs are so low.  

The desktop computing OS for end users has failed to capture any attention lately, though. Al Gillen, the program vice president for servers and system software at IDC, says the Linux OS as a computing platform for end users is at least comatose – and probably dead. Yes, it has reemerged on Android and other devices, but it has gone almost completely silent as a competitor to Windows for mass deployment. As they say, you can hear the crickets chirping.

Linux Never Had the Apps

Even a few years ago, many small developers touted a more useable, stripped-down version of Linux OS. Consumer-oriented version with names such as Peppermint and Puppy Linux promised more immediate results, easier application installs, fewer menus and a word processing app available at your fingertips.

These distros never really showed up in large companies. "Linux as a client OS for PCs never really got a decent foothold in commercial markets," Gillen says. "It's used in outlier companies, and has seen adoption in emerging markets where there was no existing installed base of Windows. Applications that are available for Windows platforms, starting with Office, but including a lot of other commercial and business applications, are simply not available for Linux. The opportunity has come and gone on the traditional PC."

Charles King, an IT analyst who follows enterprise trends, says the big change is in IT. At one time, executives in charge of computing services were mostly concerned with operating systems and applications for massive throng of traditional business users. Those users have now flocked to mobile computing devices, but they still have a Windows PC sitting on their desk.

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"Open source in general and Linux in particular were radically different in scope than Microsoft and Apple's commercial alternatives and offered hope for a radical sort of change. Today, Microsoft's lock (on the desktop, anyway) remains secure, even in the face of Apple's surge," King says. "Ironically enough, though, the open source model remains alive and well but mostly in the development of new standards and development platforms."

Part of the issue, of course, is the economy of scale. There's no hint of Linux on the HP or Dell home pages, and the Lenovo.com/linux site is really just a compatibility list. Andre Kindness, a Forrester analyst who studies IT infrastructure and operations, says there could be growth in more "packaged" offers with Linux OS and apps bundled on a desktop, but large companies probably won't bite.

The main issue, he says, is that business users need IT services delivered now, with a clean user interface and just-in-time software that's easy to use. They prove their impatience with anything overly complicated by finding their own workarounds.

David Johnson, another Forrester analyst who studies IT trends says, "The Linux developer community does amazing things, and Linux developers thrive on contributing things as individuals who help expand their own learning and competency as they help various projects, and those things may or may not align with what corporate end users really need. What corporate end users really need is familiarity, consistency and compatibility – something … Apple, Microsoft and Google seem more adept at offering."

Can Desktop Linux OS Be Saved?

Johnson says the best example of how to save Linux OS is the Chrome OS, an all-in-one laptop and desktop offering available through major consumer electronics companies such as LG (with their Chromebase all-in-one) and the Samsung Chromebook 2. End users are completely insulated from the file system (although it's still available if you know the right browser command), they don't have to learn complex open source apps that work "almost" like their Windows cousins, and they are incredibly easy to support from an IT perspective. (In fact, with the new Google Chromebox for Meetings, you can pay $250 annually and have Google handle the tech support.)

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The problem is that Chrome OS and Android aren't the same as Linux OS on the desktop. It's a complete reinvention. There are few Windows-like productivity apps and no knowledge worker apps designed for keyboard and mouse. The most prominent player in Linux desktop installs, Canonical, has nothing to do with Android or Chrome and seems to have moved on to the smartphone field. (Canonical did not respond to requests for an interview.)  

"Moral of the story: There's no money in selling the Linux OS to desktop PC users. You have to reinvent the way people work, and that's not something I think Canonical is in a position to do," Johnson says. "It's not currently commercially viable for companies like Dell or HP to offer a Linux desktop option. They don't make more money on the hardware and the support for the OS is expensive – including drivers, testing, and support."

All of experts agree – Windows won every battle for the business user. Mac OS has surged a bit lately, they argue, but the prospect of handing a Linux laptop to end users are long gone. Linux has a stranglehold on the workstation market, for developers, and on tablets and phones. It's time the enterprise decided Linux on a business laptop is finally, totally dead

This story, "Is Linux Dead for the Desktop?" was originally published by CIO .

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