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Why Linux is a desktop flop

It's free, easier to use than ever, IT staffers know it and love it, and it has fewer viruses and Trojans than Windows.

It's already ubiquitous on the server side. Plus, there are now alternatives to the most popular software packages out there -- again, for free -- and new software releases often have Web-based interfaces, making operating systems irrelevant.

So, why hasn't Linux on the desktop taken off?

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Especially since Linux -- in the form of the Android operating system -- dominates the mobile market, with a 50.9% market share at the end of 2011, according to Gartner numbers released in February, up from 30.5% market share at the end of 2010.

On the server side, Linux is also doing well, especially with high performance computing and cloud infrastructure deployments, according to IDC, with Linux servers now accounting for more than 18% of all server revenues.

But on the desktop, Linux's numbers barely register. Gartner predicts that Linux penetration on the desktop will remain below 2% for the next five years.

So, what's the problem? It's not just corporate inertia -- companies are quick to move when there's money to be saved. But when it comes to desktop Linux, the cost savings turn out to be problematic, there are management issues, and compatibility remains an issue.

Cost

Let's get the money question out of the way first. Yes, Linux is free, and so is the open source-software that often comes with it -- OpenOffice, the GIMP photo editing software, the Thunderbird email client.

But, as the old saying goes, it's "free as in puppy, not free as in beer."

First, Windows itself isn't that expensive when you get it bundled in with new desktops and laptops. The cost savings to run Linux on the same hardware is minor.

For example, the Dell Latitude 2120 with Windows 7 Home Premium is $494, while a similarly-loaded Ubuntu Latitude 2120 is $434 -- a savings of just $50.

In addition, the free versions of Linux are only supported with free fixes for about a year, says Michael Silver, an analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner group.

"You have to switch to the new version of Linux every year," he says. "Microsoft supports each version of Windows for ten years -- I don't have to pay any more money, and I still get security fixes. Even vendors that do offer extended security fixes for Linux, like Novell or Red Hat, they're going to charge every year for the privilege."

So companies wind up paying either for the time it takes to upgrade all the Linux machines, or for the extended support. "The cost ends up approaching Windows -- if not surpassing it -- fairly quickly," Silver says.

The idea that Linux is free and companies can save a lot of money by switching is a myth, he adds, one of many myths surrounding Linux deployment. "This has been a typical understanding, but a lot of organizations that have explored that have found that there's more to it," he says.

As a result, Gartner hasn't been seeing much interest in switching to Linux on the desktop, he says. "We get a lot more questions about switching to Macs than switching to Linux at this point, even though Macs are more expensive."

There has been more interest in open source software and operating systems in Europe and Latin America, Silver says. "But even that has been tapering off."

Compatibility

But the single biggest disadvantage Linux has on the desktop is in applications, says Patrick Gray, president of business strategy consultancy Prevoyance Group.

"Traditionally, Linux has been a bit more difficult to install, use, and manage, but much of that has been assuaged with variants like Ubuntu," he says. "But despite narrowing the usability gap, Linux still lacks many commercial-grade applications."

Where substitutes are available, he adds, most are not supported, or don't have the full feature sets of the commercial variants.

Plus, most professionals tend to be familiar with the leading commercial software products for the work that they do -- the open source alternatives may require additional training, or cause productivity problems.

"While Linux is free, the cost of a large company to train users, and support these applications, will likely offset the software licensing expense [of Windows]," Gray says.

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"The reason isn't security, usability or any other technology shortcoming," confirmed Mark Hinkle, director of the cloud computing community at Citrix Systems. "The inhibitor for adoption is applications."

Under Linux, he says, users can check their email, browse the Web, and use an office suite. "The problem is that things like custom billing apps, SAP, desktop productivity apps from Adobe and industry-specific apps are developed solely for the Windows desktop," he says.

Many applications are already moving to a cloud-based or browser-based delivery model, he adds. Those apps can run on any operating system with a browser, or on any smart mobile device. At that point, companies can start looking at Linux more seriously.

"Until then, Linux adoption on the desktop will be stifled."

According to Gartner's Silver, a typical organization will have one application for every 10 users, and, today, about half of those applications require the Windows operating system.

"That percentage has been declining, but still, it's pretty high," Silver says. "So if I have 10,000 users, and 1,000 applications, 500 of those applications will need Windows to run."

One intermediary solution, says Citrix' Hinkle, is to run a virtualized version of Windows on top of Linux, such as with Citrix XenClient or VMware, or use remote desktops such as Citrix XenDesktop, for those users who need specific Windows applications. "For example, the Google Chrome Netbooks complemented with apps redisplayed from a Citrix XenApp installation could be a very interesting solution for a number of users."

Virtual desktops can also be used to provide access to legacy apps for users of smart mobile devices, as well.

Making it work

Despite these negatives, there are companies out there using Linux on employee desktops.

One, for example, is a small veterinary clinic, the Chester County Cat Hospital, located just outside Philadelphia, with 10 employees.

"We took over the business last June and last July is when I moved everything over to Linux," says financial manager Paul Stadler, who bought the business with his wife, the clinic's veterinarian.

"Linux was my comfort zone, and I knew I could get it to do what I wanted it to," Stadler says.

He uses an open source practice management software system, which employees access via a browser.

"They don't seem to have noticed that it's on Linux," he says.

The previous owners used a Windows-based practice management system, and inactive patients weren't ported over to the new platform. Stadler runs a Windows emulator if he needs to pull it up, he says.

In addition, there were some Office documents and spreadsheets. "Libre Office handled them seamlessly," Stadler says. "I don't think they [the former owners] knew what a macro was, so we didn't have to deal with that at all."

Employees have been using Libre Office without a problem, he adds, for simple tasks such as writing a letter to someone or moving some numbers around in an inventory tracking spreadsheet.

"I would say that, since July, they've probably come to me three times with a question on how to do something in that software," he says. "The less savvy your employees are, the less it matters -- everything they do is extremely simple."

Overall, Stadler says, he's probably saved around $10,000 a year in software costs, mostly as a result of the practice management software.

But he adds that he would have seen the same savings if he had stuck with Windows, since all the software can run on that platform, as well.

Meanwhile, drivers have sometimes been a hassle, he says. "The open source community packages them up for you, but at a pretty severe lag," he says. "When I bought new printers, I had to download the drivers. I got them to work, but you have to be technologically literate to do it. It was actually a challenge to get those drivers working."

LA-based InMotion Hosting is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the Chester County Cat Hospital when it comes to the technical skills of its employees.

The company's server farms are Linux-based, and many employees are comfortable working with Linux. As a result, about 25% run Linux on their desktops, says CEO Todd Robinson. Of the rest, 65% use Windows and the rest have Macs, he adds.

In addition to problems with finding software to run on Linux, and training staffers who have grown up using Windows or Macs, Robinson says Linux desktops also have a management problem.

"It's such a flexible environment that there's a lot of freedom to do things, even things you shouldn't do," he says. "A typical thing in a Windows setting is to establish some usage policies, and set up some limitations on the systems to keep them stable. Linux doesn't have those types of standards out of the box."

Instead, companies looking to centrally manage Linux desktops have to create those types of policies and limitations, he says. "Windows is set up that way."

Other large-scale examples of Linux deployments tend to fall into one of these two extremes. Either employees use their machines in very limited ways -- such as bank tellers, for example, or store clerks -- or in very sophisticated ways where they often write their own applications and need the power and control that Linux offers.

In the big middle ground, however, the applications rule, and companies choose the platforms that give employees the software they need to do their jobs. That means Windows for general business applications, and Macs for specialized graphics work.

As more companies embrace Bring Your Own Device, web-based application delivery, or virtual desktops, Linux may have some room to expand. Until then, it's still a Windows desktop world after all.

Korolov is a freelance business and technology writer in Massachusetts. She can be reached at maria@tromblyinternational.com.

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.


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