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Why Linux is a desktop flop

By Maria Korolov, Network World
April 30, 2012 07:03 AM ET

Network World - It's free, easier to use than ever, IT staffers know it and love it, and it has fewer viruses and Trojans than Windows.

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It's already ubiquitous on the server side. Plus, there are now alternatives to the most popular software packages out there -- again, for free -- and new software releases often have Web-based interfaces, making operating systems irrelevant. (Watch a slideshow of 7 reasons why Linux is a desktop flop.)

So, why hasn't Linux on the desktop taken off?

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Especially since Linux -- in the form of the Android operating system -- dominates the mobile market, with a 50.9% market share at the end of 2011, according to Gartner numbers released in February, up from 30.5% market share at the end of 2010.

On the server side, Linux is also doing well, especially with high performance computing and cloud infrastructure deployments, according to IDC, with Linux servers now accounting for more than 18% of all server revenues.

But on the desktop, Linux's numbers barely register. Gartner predicts that Linux penetration on the desktop will remain below 2% for the next five years.

So, what's the problem? It's not just corporate inertia -- companies are quick to move when there's money to be saved. But when it comes to desktop Linux, the cost savings turn out to be problematic, there are management issues, and compatibility remains an issue.

Cost

Let's get the money question out of the way first. Yes, Linux is free, and so is the open source-software that often comes with it -- OpenOffice, the GIMP photo editing software, the Thunderbird email client.

But, as the old saying goes, it's "free as in puppy, not free as in beer."

First, Windows itself isn't that expensive when you get it bundled in with new desktops and laptops. The cost savings to run Linux on the same hardware is minor.

For example, the Dell Latitude 2120 with Windows 7 Home Premium is $494, while a similarly-loaded Ubuntu Latitude 2120 is $434 -- a savings of just $60.

In addition, the free versions of Linux are only supported with free fixes for about a year, says Michael Silver, an analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner group.

"You have to switch to the new version of Linux every year," he says. "Microsoft supports each version of Windows for ten years -- I don't have to pay any more money, and I still get security fixes. Even vendors that do offer extended security fixes for Linux, like Novell or Red Hat, they're going to charge every year for the privilege."

So companies wind up paying either for the time it takes to upgrade all the Linux machines, or for the extended support. "The cost ends up approaching Windows -- if not surpassing it -- fairly quickly," Silver says.

The idea that Linux is free and companies can save a lot of money by switching is a myth, he adds, one of many myths surrounding Linux deployment. "This has been a typical understanding, but a lot of organizations that have explored that have found that there's more to it," he says.

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