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Memo to Linux: Beware the Desktop Quagmire

By Keith Regan
Nov 19, 2003 8:56 AM PT

It's a simple equation, really: Personal computer desktop equals Microsoft. It's probably not fair, and it may even be that the synonymous status represents the ill-gotten gains of a monopolistic company. But it's as close to hard, fast truth as you can get. Ninety-seven percent of the population can't be wrong.

Memo to Linux: Beware the Desktop Quagmire

Or can they? Linux backers think so, because as part of their let's-change-the-world campaign, they've taken dead aim at the desktop. Pull up a chair and get ready for some fun -- but don't bet anything other than house money on a Linux desktop for the long run.

This is a war the Linux camp may want to wage for strategic reasons, but it's also one it can't win.

Winning Formula

Make no mistake: The Linux desktop movement has a boatload of innovation and ingenuity on its side. It's also recruited some muscle. Hewlett-Packard's on board, Sun's signed up, and the most recently arrived titan at the party is IBM, with a Big Blue executive recently giving a speech that basically said "the time is now" to put Linux on the desktop. Technically, it's already there, but IBM is right in that with Linux on an estimated 3 percent of desktops worldwide, the time isn't quite now.

In some ways, the Linux desktop movement is a no-lose proposition. Even if the operating system's proponents move the needle only slightly, increasing market share from, say, 3 percent to 6 percent, that would be hugely impressive. It also would be lucrative, not just in terms of the software, services and training revenues Linux companies would generate, but because enterprises would be emboldened to further reduce costs by taking Linux for an even more extensive test drive.

Breaking Glass

But beyond that, is Linux going to kick Windows off the desktop? It's unlikely. It would take a worm powerful enough to take down worldwide e-mail for a week to convince people to make the leap from Windows to something else, let alone something as unknown to the general public as Linux.

Windows is what people know, what they're comfortable with. It's the McDonald's of operating systems. You know it's not good for you, but you can't help but buy it at least once in a while. And it's the same everywhere you go, which is the real key to Microsoft's success.

Indeed, the company has made an operating system that's insanely easy to use as the gold standard, so that if employee X is fired from Acme on Monday, he can pick up right where he left off at Acme's competitor on Tuesday. When he flicks on the monitor, he'll find a nice, familiar Windows desktop.

Then there's the moving target problem. What should the Linux desktop be like? Should it be like Windows as we know it now, but without the gaping security holes? If it is, won't it already be outdated when it hits the shelves? Microsoft, for all its flaws, never stops developing better software, and it will out-improve Linux on the desktop given half a chance.

Apple Redux

So what's the alternative? Linux could be content to be a niche player -- an alternative, one the tech-savvy and open-minded among us will gravitate to. Another Apple. That alone would pose a competitive threat to Microsoft, eating away at the edge of the software giant's market share, denting profits by forcing it to carefully consider how it prices things.

The Linux community has a lot on its plate already. The decision to dump years and millions of dollars into developing a desktop alternative is a noble task. Just developing a market-viable product alone will help some skeptics recognize the value of open-source software.

But in the end, once the smoke has cleared and the battlefield casualties have been counted, Microsoft still will control the vast majority of the desktop marketplace. With the outcome so obvious, is this a war really worth fighting at all?

Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

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