Linux Off the Shelf
Some people argue that Microsoft Windows is so popular because most PCs come with Windows already installed. Until Linux enjoys the same opportunity, they say, the competition is weighted in Microsoft's favor.
In 2007, desktop Linux gained some modest ground in PC vendor catalogs. The biggest announcement of the year was Dell's decision to offer two PC models with Ubuntu pre-loaded rather than Windows. The $499 Desktop 530N and $749 Notebook 1420N both include Ubuntu 7.04.
Not to be outdone, Lenovo, maker of the business-favorite ThinkPad notebooks, followed Dell by announcing that T-series models would be available with SLED 10 pre-installed in late 2007.
Even Wal-Mart has joined the act, selling out of the $199 Everex gPC that runs its own lower-end version of desktop Linux.
All that said, the impact that pre-loaded Linux machines have had so far in the market could be described as throwing a pebble into a lake. "Desktop Linux is growing, albeit very slowly," said Gary Chen, senior analyst at the Yankee Group, "but since Dell got into desktop Linux the growth has not accelerated." Dell itself has yet to release official sales figures.
Price, Security and Vista
People who market Linux no doubt hope to leverage three of Microsoft's perceived main weaknesses. One is price: desktop Linux can be acquired and installed for as little as zero dollars, potentially very attractive to a small business with more than one or two machines. While no operating system if perfectly secure, the bombardment of malware that has driven up the cost of maintaining Windows PCs has not yet hit the Linux desktop with any significant force. And then there's Vista. Both cost and performance concerns surrounding Vista have encumbered the new operating system with an air of uncertainty. So many businesses have expressed reluctance to jump into Vista that vendors who had previously pulled support for Windows XP have had to re-introduce it.
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All of which has bred some hostility against Microsoft, said Jaffe at IDC. "An anti-Microsoft sentiment is most prevalent among small businesses (and one of their top five reasons for positive interest in Linux)." Added Gary Chen, "Some people haven't gotten to the decision point about their desktops yet. But when they do, I think that a lot more of them will at least consider Linux."
But will motivation translate into action? So far, the numbers are small. "Of the roughly 8.3 million small businesses in the U.S., less than two percent currently use any particular Linux environment on a desktop," Jaffe noted.
Although 2007 has been a good year for desktop Linux, "good" has to be kept in perspective. "Growth continues and Linux has made a lot of good progressions, but nothing earth-shaking market impact-wise," said Chen. "If desktop Linux is successful, it will be a long slow growth process."
The stage has been set and the technology is ready, but will people show up to the party? It may take 2008 or longer to find out.
This article was first published on Small Business Computing.