Linux Desktop

ZDNet’s story on Sun has an interesting comment on the desktop:

Displacing Windows on the desktop, however, will take more than appealing to the bean counters. Many companies have Office macros and applications that are not easily accommodated by an open source alternative.

I can speculate that the alternative desktop will center around Java, Mozilla, and Linux, with OpenOffice/StarOffice as an alternative to Microsoft Office and Linux (or even Solaris) as the operating system, some user interface conventions, and industry standard hardware.

The basic elements of an alternative desktop exist. The challenge is in creating an integrated platform that gains the kind of community development support and governance that Linux has garnered.

There is another story on the Linux desktop potential in ZDnet. It mentions about Verizon saving USD 6 million in system costs but that also resulted in additional software conversion costs. On MS-Office and Star/OpenOffice, a Microsoft director is quoted as saying: “StarOffice or its open-source sibling OpenOffice are ‘good enough’ for basic tasks but are harder to use than Microsoft Office. Microsoft’s studies of the 11 most frequently used operations in Microsoft Office took on average 2.5 less time than in StarOffice.” [Would be good to get to take a look at the study – which are these 11 operations?]

The Real Opportunity for the Linux Desktop

One has to look at two distinctive markets for a Linux Desktop: one is for existing Windows users (primarily in the world’s developed markets) and one for the new users (in the emerging markets). The first segment is going to be hard to target, and that is what everyone (including Sun and Red Hat) seem to be after. That is a mistake. It is not easy to switch people using Windows, especially when the financial incentive is small compared to the total salary of a person.

The second segment is the one to target: catch the users in the cradle, as it were. To do this, the Linux Desktop should additionally have the following (when targeted at enterprises)
– a Thin Client, to bring down the cost of hardware and move computing to the server, thus simplifying desktop administration
– a Digital Dashboad, to aggregate all information so that becomes the “virtual desktop”, making it easier for new users (who may even be first-time computer users) to connect to the other applications

There is another segment – a stand-alone Linux Thick Desktop, which can be used to bring down the software cost. This is useful (and the thing that Sun and Red Hat seem to be focused on), but I think it will not succeed because it only gives one advantage (software cost reduction) compared to three benefits of the other approach based on a Thin Client (hardware cost reduction, software cost reduction, and ease of manageability).

Windows is still much easier and friendlier to use than Linux on the desktop. Rather than “disappointing” users we need to “delight” users. This is where Linux needs to look at new markets for the desktop – the next millions of users for whom the first taste of computing could be Linux.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.