Group Hopes to Give New Life to Desktop Linux

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Despite the legitimacy of the open-source movement, most of Linux's inroads have been made on the server side as opposed to the client (a.k.a. desktop). A new consortium, formed by a number of leading vendors and open source organizations in the Linux space, is trying to change that.

The Desktop Linux Consortium (DLC) revealed itself Wednesday, announcing intentions to bring Linux on the desktop to the computing public.

"We already have all of the tools, in open source software, necessary for 80 percent of office workers in the world: an office suit including spreadsheet, word processor, and presentation program; a Web browser, graphical desktop file manager, and tools for communications, scheduling, and personal information management," Linux creator Linus Torvalds trumpeted in a press statement. "The Linux desktop is inevitable!"

That might be the case but one thing is for sure -- Linux has a long way to go. While IDC has seen some increase in shipment of Linux desktop licenses, and the percentages look nice, Linux remains a very small player on the desktop.

"Linux on the desktop is one of the great opportunities that Linux has not yet been able to really capture," Al Gillen, analyst for IDC, told InternetNews.com.

By Gillen's estimates, Microsoft still accounted for 93 percent of client operating environment new license shipments in 2001. Meanwhile, Linux came in at about 2.1 percent. And while Microsoft would almost certainly dispute Torvalds' claim, the company recognizes Linux and open source as a threat, even going so far as to acknowledge the possibility that it may need to reduce prices if open source software gains traction.

In its latest 10-Q filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Microsoft noted that the open source movement poses "a significant challenge to the company's business model."

"Since its inception, the company's business model has been based upon customers agreeing to pay a fee to license software developed and distributed by Microsoft. Under this commercial software development (CSD) model, software developers bear the costs of converting original ideas into software products through investments in research and development, offsetting these costs with the revenues received from the distribution of their products. The Company believes that the CSD model has had substantial benefits for users of software, allowing them to rely on the expertise of the company and other software developers that have powerful incentives to develop innovative software that is useful, reliable and compatible with other software and hardware. In recent years, there has been a growing challenge to the CSD model, often referred to as the Open Source movement. Under the Open Source model, software is produced by global "communities" of programmers, and the resulting software and the intellectual property contained therein is licensed to end users at little or no cost. Nonetheless, the popularization of the Open Source movement continues to pose a significant challenge to the company's business model, including recent efforts by proponents of the Open Source model to convince governments worldwide to mandate the use of Open Source software in their purchase and deployment of software products. To the extent the Open Source model gains increasing market acceptance, sales of the company's products may decline, the company may have to reduce the prices it charges for its products, and revenues and operating margins may consequently decline," the company disclosed in its filing.

In an attempt to turn Microsoft's cautionary tale into a prophecy, the DLC plans to use trade shows, conferences and public relations activities and programs to target corporate, institutional and home users in evangelizing efforts about the benefits of Linux on the desktop.

The consortium has the backing of a number of companies and organizations, including ArkLinux, CodeWeavers, Debian.org, DesktopLinux.com, KDE, Linux Professional Institute (LPI), Lycoris, The Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP), MandrakeSoft, NeTraverse, OpenOffice.org, Questnet, Samba.org, theKompany, SuSE, TransGaming Technologies, TrustCommerce, Xandros, and Ximian.

"The initial intentions for the DLC are very clear," said Interim Chairman Jeremy White, of CodeWeavers. "Linux is firmly established in the server space, and now desktop Linux is coming of age. The ultimate beneficiary of the consortium is the computing public, which will be assured a vibrant, open, stable alternative to closed proprietary systems, and an end to ever-escalating licensing fees."

Open source guru and community leader Bruce Perens, who is serving as the consortium's interim executive director, added, "The Desktop Linux Consortium will assure that there is fairness in all Desktop Linux-related issues and events. All vendors will be fully represented and the open source ethos will be respected."

But Gillen noted that Linux still faces an uphill battle on the desktop.

"Microsoft Office on Linux would be a good start," he said. "That's something that CodeWeavers is trying to deliver." But in the end, he said, it all comes down to users, even in corporate computing environments. "End-user pull favors Microsoft technology because that's what most consumers use at home," he said. "That's a hard thing for IT managers to go up against."

Some Linux companies, like Lindows and DLC-member Lycoris, are trying to change that by offering inexpensive computers, with Linux operating systems pre-installed, through outlets like Walmart.com. On Tuesday, Lindows even announced that Walmart.com will offer LindowsOS as a standalone operating system.

But Gillen noted that the consortium will likely need established, big-name vendors to capture the attention of the consumer population.

"Consumers tend to purchase a full system from a Dell or HP or IBM," he said. "They don't put them together piecemeal." He added, "The more turnkey a solution is, and the more pre-configured it is from the factory, the more likely it is for the consumer to commit to it and use it."

However, for that to happen, the established vendors will need to see volume that would justify such a move. For instance, Dell flirted briefly with Linux on the desktop, but decided to discontinue the offering.

"There wasn't enough volume," Gillen said. "If the volume were there, you could be sure that companies would step up to the table."

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