Linux on Desktops

The Economist writes:

Within the past month, some of the world’s most powerful technology firms have pledged considerable support for Linux on the desktop. Hewlett-Packard (HP), which runs neck-and-neck with Dell as the largest seller of PCs in the world, said it will begin shipping some machines that run on Novell’s flavour of the free operating system, called SuSE Linux. And Sun Microsystems, an arch-rival of Microsoft, announcedeven as it was preparing to bury the hatchet with Microsoft officiallythat it had persuaded Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, to sell cheap PCs using Linux and Sun’s StarOffice suite of application programs, instead of the ubiquitous Microsoft Office. This follows a deal that Sun struck last autumn with several Chinese ministries to ship up to 1m PCs with Sun’s Linux package to China this year, rising to tens of millions in future years, according to Jonathan Schwartz, Sun’s chief operating officer.

Is this the beginning of the end for Microsoft’s virtual monopoly on the desktop? Certainly not right away, says Al Gillen, an analyst at IDC, a technology consultancy. Today, almost 94% of all PCs in the world run on Windows, while slightly more than 3%mostly in creative industries and universitiesuse Apple’s Macintosh system. Fewer than 3% use Linux. By the end of the decade, Linux’s share could grow to 7-10%, reckons Mr Gillen, displacing Macs as the main alternative.

More specifically, two windows, so to speak, of opportunity appear to be opening. One is that the next version of Windows, called Longhorn, has been delayed to 2006 at the earliest, in part by Microsoft’s realisation that it has to tighten up security a lot more. So, for the next two years, companies and home users thinking about updating their operating system might be reluctant to buy the current version, Windows XP, knowing it will soon be overtaken. Hence they may consider alternatives more seriously. If Linux can establish a good reputation during this period, it might look even more attractive once Longhorn, which will be expensive and is likely to require new hardware, is released. Linux, after all, can be very cheap: $100 per user if bought as part of Sun’s package, for instance. It can even be downloaded for nothing from the internet.

The other opportunity lies in poor countries. Unlike rich countries, which have a huge installed base of Windows computers and billions of documents in Microsoft’s fiddly file formats, most users in Asia and South America are starting with a clean slate. For a country such as China, says Sun’s Mr Schwartz, the attraction of open-source software is obvious: it is cheaper, so it will reduce the incentive to get pirated software (most copies of Windows in China are fake) and thus help China improve its relations with the World Trade Organisation. Better still, it allows China to avoid being locked into a single vendorand an American one at that.

On the other hand, despite improvements Linux faces real obstacles. It can still be a nightmare for home users to install and, unless bought as part of a commercial package such as Sun’s, it does not come with a help-desk. Worse, there are still too few applications. Fewer than 1% of all computer games, for instance, work on Linux. Software to manage personal finances or organise digital photos is also missing. In theory these programs could all be written but, without a huge increase in users, code-writers will not bother.

The future is uncertain, and Linux still might yet represent another kind of threat to [Microsoft]. No standard operating system has yet emerged for mobile handsets, robots, watches, televisions, printers, car gadgets and other such devices. Microsoft, naturally, wants to extend Windows’ dominance to these as well. It is here, rather than the desktop, that Linux could be a real threat to the mighty company’s ambitions.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.