Linux is the enabler for the disruptive innovation in Server-based Computing. On the server side, Linux has already made inroads in the past few years, with the availability of a full suite of software packages like Apache (web server), Samba (file server), Squid (Proxy Server), MySQL and PostgreSQL (database servers) and JBoss (application server). This, though, is an old story.
The real innovations are happening on the client side with the availability of a number of desktop applications which are comparable to the ones available under Microsoft Windows. These are Evolution (email, calendar, contact database like Outlook), Mozilla (web browser like Internet Explorer) and OpenOffice (word processor, spreadsheet and presentation package like MS Office). Taken together, for the first time it is possible to think of a Linux-based Desktop which offers much of the functionality of MS-Windows.
The main hurdle for many years has been the file compatibility issue. Microsoft Offices monopoly on the desktop means that one has to be able to read and write MS Office file formats. There are two options: one is to use OpenOffice which will read most MS Office files (as long as they are not too complicated) and will also write MS Office file formats, and the second is to convert the MS Office files to HTML and then send it across to people.
For people who have been using Windows on the desktop for many years, it will not be an easy switch to a Linux desktop. But if one is willing to unlearn a few things and relearn a few new things, it is possible to get up to speed with a good-enough alternative in a few days. The big attraction to make the switch: the savings of nearly USD 500 (Rs 25,000) on the desktop. Multiply that with tens or hundreds of people in the enterprise, and the numbers can get quite big.
One key point to note is that the Thin Client and the Thick Server are on the same LAN, so access is instantaneous. The LAN can be an Ethernet running across the enterprise or connecting multiple homes, or a cable drops across multiple homes in a building or neighbourhood, or a Wireless LAN solution which connects the nodes to a network access point. In each of the modes, the Thin Clients connect to the Thick Servers at multi-megabit speeds.
The Linux-based Thin Client (which can be an old used PC) and Thick Server solution makes computing available to a large segment of people who previously did not have access to it. As with most disruptive innovations, the early adopters are likely to the ones for whom the solution is a delight. Think of emerging markets, schools, colleges, homes and cybercafes. It now becomes possible to contemplate a mass market infrastructure for computing with legal software and at a very low cost.
Look at some of the statistics about Indias computer market. PC sales for the year-ending March 2002 were 1.67 million units, down 11% from the previous year. While the number of units sold is itself quite pathetic (India accounted for less than 1.2% of the PC sales worldwide last year), what is even more appalling is the year-on-year decrease. How can an emerging market like India even dream of entering the developed markets orbit with falling PC sales?
Tomorrow: How India can Lead