Memo to Linux: Beware the Desktop Quagmire

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.

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.


  • This article might be well-meaning, but it is foolish and child-like in its use of logic.
    I use Linux because it is free and because it is already qualitatively superior to Windows. My use is primarily on the desktop, so improvements in desktop integration will only permit others like myself to receive an even greater advantage over Windows users, who must pay a very steep price, both in terms of $ but also in terms of lost security and privacy, not to mention loss of control over many aspects of their lives that the average person turns over to Microsoft and their affiliates when they use M$ products.
    If folks feel comforable to live herded by rules imposed by Microsoft and other corporate titans of technology rather than enjoy the freedom Linux provides, that is their choice. Personally, I see no need to further subsidize Bill Gates’ retirement plan. I have my own to consider. Linux on the desktop gives me the edge over them, so I AM happy regardless. I haven’t used M$ products in over 4 years and I figure I AM well over $2,500 ahead aready and I AM not without the powerful database, spreadsheet, wordprocessing, and computational and programming tools professionals use on a daily basis.
    As for the dominance of Windows, the fact that M$ has changed its PR and advertising approach over the past two years in response to the growth and diversification of open source software is a clear indication that a sea of change in desktop, as well as server software, is well underway. The reason? The incremental Darwinian advantage Linux confers to its users over those sold to M$ users.
    In twenty years I will be surprised if M$ holds more than 25% of the world market in any software category despite their most monopolostic efforts. Notice how many foreign users are either starting their computational lives or transitioning to Linux? Use in China alone over the next 10 years will make Linux the number one operating system without an appreciable change in the proportion of non-Chinese Linux/Windows users. Then add in the Indians, the Brazilians, and the Europeans and the world is already begining to look like a very different place making this commentary look rather quaint in is perspective.
    However, I AM concerned that the US is falling behind in the open OS arena, which may eventually have serious national security implications. Let us only hope that DOD, NSA, FBI, NSF, NIH, and NASA have healthy Linux initiatives. Let us also hope that our court system has not been so throughly politicized and corrupted that Linux remains a choice in the American marketplace.
    Anyway, don’t bet your bank account on Windows always being top dog. One of the reasons the technology market has "collapsed" is that the availability of Linux and the GPL has brought more rationality to the market, despite monopolistic distortions.
    In any event, Happy computing.

    • Yes, Linux is about open standards. Only problem is: The average Joe user does not give a rats a** about open standards.
      The viewpoint is focusing on desktop use and personal use. Most users are focused on how easy they can write their documents and how easy they can use their office applications. It is not possible to do this much easier than with Microsoft’s products, so the only other aspect that concerns these "simple" users is the price.
      IMHO price and the possible threat of vira/worms will be the main reasons for average users to switch.

      • It is not possible to do this much easier than with Microsoft’s products, so the only other aspect that concerns ***these "simple" users is the price.****
        I live in East Asia, where the price is of NO concern, as we buy ANY u$ product for Half A Dollar.
        And still, people here start switching over to linux, because windows crashes 5 times a day, and they have not the knowledge to fix it.
        Everytime reboot and hope for the best, otherwise stop all work, and try to find someone who knows.
        I AM told by a lot of these peple, that they find Linux better, after they got used to it for a few months. They all know the —-KILL—-button.
        Kill the app, and start again. 30 seconds, not 30 minutes.

        • Microsoft can’t reach any more people than it can now. You Americans and Europeans are only a fraction of the global population. You are the only ones who can afford to buy Windows. I dont think you have a choice if microsoft doubles its price you just have to buy it.
          Open source can reach the ease of use of windows and more. I’m not talking of about cloning Windows but taking the concepts of Mac OS X beyond what it is now.

          • ********unless a tech person installs all their software.******
            That is not really correct.
            Mandrake , Suse and many others provide ways to install software on a way that **my grandmother can do it***
            I don’t want to go further on this.Amen.

          • I AM in tech support for mostly Windows and Mac systems. I have supported close to 1000 people not including time served answering helpdesk calls and I have to say that most people can’t install Windows and Mac OS on their own either. Besides, most users don’t install Windows on their machines. Either someone else does it or they buy it with the software installed…Mac users actually edge out Windows users in being able to install or upgrade their Operating System. That obviously doesn’t mean that Windows and Mac OS aren’t ready for the desktop. The installation portion of an OS’s lifetime is so short, that it is disingenous to say that this is critical for desktop adoption anyway. Computer Repair centers at Best Buy and Comp USA wouldn’t exist if the majority of users could do this on their own. When Blaster hit, Best Buys around the country had people waiting in line for the in-store technicians to run a FREELY DOWNLOADABLE program (even AFTER the employees told users they could do the same things ON THEIR OWN).
            I AM also guessing that you haven’t tried installing Linux lately either. First off, the graphical user installers on any modern Linux distribution are quite good, many have been reviewed as BETTER than the Windows installation program. One of my colleagues installed RedHat Linux 9 to a system and remarked "that was easier to install on that system than when I put XP on it."
            Also there is a graphical version of apt-get… it is called Synaptic and works quite well.

  • This short sightedness of giving up the fight when victory seems unlikely in the near future is a sign of the times. We need to remeber that throughout history, good things have taken much time and the dedication of many awake/aware individuals.

  • In World War II, when the Germans attacked Norway, they had a very powerful weapon in their arsenal, — a fifth column within Norway under Vidkun Quisling, whose role was to demoralise Norwegian resistance and render it incapable of fighting the invaders.
    "Why bother fighting? It’s useless to resist," was the general message.
    In the end, not only was it *not* useless to resist the Nazis, but eminently possible and rewarding. It just needed men like Winston Churchill who doggedly refused to admit defeat even when everything seemed lost and hopeless.
    Things are very different with Linux and Windows today. Windows is actually on the retreat, so messages of despair are doubly out of place.
    When Linux and Open Source beat Microsoft on the desktop, the new word for Quisling will be Keith Regan.
    Nice try, Keith.
    Ganesh Prasad

  • I just kicked windows out today,after using u$ since dos3.
    Reason is that in my opinion it becomes worse, not better.
    Every time you update or patch, you have a bootload of misery.
    Yesterday was the last straw, when I * moved* a 170Bb directory from one partition to another, and when it was finished, and I checked it, the only thing that was copied was the directory tree, *** without*** the data.
    Yes, I AM baffled to, but never mind.
    I used some tools to recover my data, and now I AM off to Linux, after messing around with it for a year
    And for your info, I have about 50 friends who have switched to linux in the last year.
    Not for the price( because…?) but for quality.
    See you, windows????s

  • At the risk of sounding like a troll, I’d say this article really chaps my hide. Think about it, there’s a reason for every article. Most times it’s to be informative, sometimes to be entertaining. Others still, it’s to spread PROPAGANDA. At this point I strongly hint that LinuxInsider.com just may be a pinky-ring for a certain Redmond-based corporation (note banner ads).

  • As Microsoft tightens up licensing enforcement, businesses and governments in much of the world are moving to Linux on the desktop. They simply can’t afford Microsoft licenses, even at reduced prices. Even in developed countries like Germany the move is being made for reasons of economy and security and to encourage a local software industry.
    The U.S. may lag far behind, but eventually, as Linux becomes the standard for international trade, it will be adopted here as well. Microsoft knows this, and knows they can’t continue buying off every business, city or country that considers a move to Linux.

  • It is indeed a simple minded equation, and one that has obviously not been subjected to any rigorous proof, but seems instead to spring forth from the author’s admiration for ms windows. To each his own, as they say, but I hope that the author does not expect each of us to subscribe to his own personal microsoft religion.
    I run a small consulting firm, and don’t have a lot of room for mistakes in my IT direction. I moved all our operations, both on the server end and on the desktop, to linux, and haven’t looked back since. Thank You.

  • If OS marketshare were driven by consumers, Mr. Regan would be right on target. But, in the end, OS marketshare is not driven by consumers, but by institutional users. And these institutional users (corporations, governmental agencies, and such) make OS decisions based on very different reasons than the typical consumer who will almost always choose the familiar over the unknown. Right now consumers use Windows and Office because thats what they use at work. When something new arrives at work and they have no choice but to use it, they will eventually carry it home. And Microsoft is losing incrementally at the institutional level. The huge Sun deal with China is just one example. There will be more … and more. And, while it will take time, the effect will eventually reverberate to the consumer desktop.

  • For the average person Linux is not ready for the desktop unless a tech person installs all their software.
    Why does not IBM release the graphical user interface portion of OS/2 as Open Source? The open source community could work on a graphical version of apt-get…
    Alternatively why does not Apple sell a graphical interface for users that works on top of Linux? Tech people could pick,install, and configure their environment…
    Richard Latulipe

  • Trying to wrest the "desktop crown" from M$ really is not a priority for most OSS developers. We use Linux desktops exclusively for all of our work. Why? Because we need to get work done and the M$ development tools and even the desktop environment itself just don’t hack it.
    We develop Linux and applications to run on it because we need to get work done. Others may find it useful, and this may or may not result in "desktop dominance" by Linux. We simply don’t care.

  • The "McDonalds OS" at our home is FreeBSD, not Windows. We switched because we wanted a stable platform where everyone in the family had their own private desktop environment. Our system is more responsive than when it ran Windows XP, and it doesn’t get rebooted for months at a time. The reboots only happen when we choose to take the system down to add some new hardware or just to clean out the accumulated dust. Not a single crash or problem from the OS, and no virus attacks. BTW – doesn’t McDonalds use a UNIX OS to run their cash registers?

  • All I want to say is that this is some pretty subtle but devious FUD. "Can’t win." "Is it worth fighting at all?" Come on people. We should stop developing Linux? Besides, Linus Torvalds’s AM bition wasn’t, and isn’t, to take down MS in the first place. The author sure does a marvellous job of ignoring the facts; what’s the ratio of "Linux replaces Windows" to "Windows replaces Linux" after you take out the MS-sponsored surveys? Last time I checked it was about 52.

  • The battle of the desktops is really just beginning.
    The biggest thing tying people to Windows is the software. The operating system is of little importance.
    People want to be able to play their games, use their web browser, mail client, word processor, spreadsheet, etc.
    It also has to be easy to use.
    If Linux succeeds in fulfilling all these needs (it’s getting closer every day), then there will be little to keep people from switching.
    People are loyal to their software, not their operating system.
    For example… people have stayed with Microsoft because they were able (for the most part) to keep running their old software as they upgraded through various versions of MS-DOS, to Windows 3.0, Windows 3.1, Windows 3.11, Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows Me, Windows XP, etc.
    If one day a distribution comes out that is specifically set up to make running old existing Windows software out of the box without having to be a Linux genius, and is able to run new Windows software that comes along without having to go through painstaking steps and upgrades of various packages, then Microsoft is going to have a serious run for their money.
    Once people start migrating away from Windows and start using Linux (namely open source X-Windows software)-specific software, it’s going to become difficult for Microsoft to lure them back.
    The infusion of commercial funding to add the final bells, whistles, good user interface, clean-up and bug-fixing to projects like wine which has had over ten years of independent development is resulting in the wakening of many sleeping dragons.
    Quite a few old and large projects mostly unknown or ignored by the Windows desktop industry (including Microsoft) are soon to rise as glorious fiery dragons.
    It’s premature to say this is a war that can’t be won. The troops are still rallying.

  • Quote: "This is a war the Linux camp may want to wage for strategic reasons, but it’s also one it can’t win."
    I would like to (mildly) disagree. A definition of "win" is needed here. If one means the complete reversal of the present situation, then perhaps I’d (reluctantly) agree.
    If, OTOH, one means attaining an installed desktop share of (say) 20% over the next 10 years, then I’d argue that this is eminently attainable.
    But, in order for this to happen, Linux desktop distributors need to settle on a standard desktop environment, both in look-and-feel *and* in the way it works to be successful. Look-and-feel is the most important aspect, IMO.

  • I think this article was written deliberately to provoke readers. If not, then the author hasn’t done his homework and is missing the main point behind linux.
    Linux is not about free software. It’s all about open standards. This means encouraging companies to compete to provide good software. This means users choosing one company over another because their product is better.
    Microsoft is all about leaving no choice to the end user by suppressing competition.
    For instance, why has Microsoft hidden the technical details of how Word documents are written? We all use the Word format, but Microsoft doesn’t want competitors to know how to make a competing product.
    At present we are locked into using Microsoft products, not because they are good, but because they have successfully eliminated competitors. The methods have in some cases been proven illegal and the European Commission is currently taking Microsoft to court precisely for this reason.
    Don’t get me wrong: Microsoft does produce useful technology. But it has illegally become a monopoly. The poor quality of software products like the windows operating system is a direct result of this monopoly.
    The internet is built upon open standards (TCP/IP, HTTP, HTML, XML). We can communicate with the other side of the planet in almost real-time.
    Microsoft Office isn’t built on open standards. Over the last 10 years, writing a document (something pretty elementary!) has caused us to pull our hair out. Do you remember your colleagues not able to read your document because she didn’t have latest version of Word?

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