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Is the mainstream ready for Linux?

Businesses are going open source, but OS may still be too technical for most users

The open-source operating system Linux may be gaining a lot of ground in the enterprise space, but Windows will likely continue to dominate consumer desktops, at least in the near future.

Industry research firm IDC said Linux is fast making headway in the enterprise market, replacing Unix as the operating system of choice among a growing number of companies worldwide.

However, it predicted that Linux is not likely to gain as much success in the consumer desktop space given the current lack of support for the open-source operating software.

IDC analyst Rajnish Arora says that based on IDC's 2004 Server Consolidation Survey, a growing number of companies are using Linux to replace Unix-based servers in their organisations.

Based on the study, 14 percent of companies surveyed said they were replacing their Windows servers, 18 percent were replacing their Unix servers, and some 42 percent were taking out Netware from their servers.

But even as Linux is making strong progress in the enterprise market, it is expected to struggle to find the same kind of success in the consumer, mass-market desktop arena.

Stephan February, CTO of Adeptiva Linux, a Singapore-based Linux development and support company, admitted that consumers will find it difficult to use Linux because of the lack of support that is comparable to that available for Windows-based desktop computers.

"[For most consumer desktop users], there is no compelling need to shift to Linux today," said February.

Despite the availability of user-friendly graphical user interfaces similar to those on Windows-based desktops, Linux remains a very technical software product with very few people outside the technical community available to support consumer users.

February said most Windows users today often rely on relatives and friends for help whenever something goes wrong with their computers. This type of support network is not yet present for the Linux community. Even though there are numerous discussion boards on the internet whose members can readily help, most consumers will still feel uncomfortable with that kind of support model, he noted.

Goh Seow Hiong, director for software policy of the Business Software Alliance, agreed that most consumers are not yet ready for Linux.

Goh, who holds a degree in computer science, explained that even with his technical background, he could not set up his Linux installation properly to work with his computer's graphics card. People with lesser technical knowhow will certainly feel lost if they encounter a problem with their Linux computers, he said.

Even with the apparent success in some countries of vendors selling lower-cost desktop computers installed with Linux operating software, Goh remains unimpressed. "People are buying these Linux desktops and replacing (the operating system) with pirated Windows OS," he said.

Adeptiva's February said he will not advise consumers to make a shift to Linux today, but business users should seriously consider making the move.

"Business users have a compelling reason to move to Linux because it lowers cost and solves some of the biggest problems haunting user productivity which include spyware, viruses, and worms," he said. Windows-based machines are typically more vulnerable to these threats, he added.

The momentum that will drive Linux will indeed come from the business community, observed Steve McWithers, managing director of Red Hat for Asia Pacific.

Red Hat, a pure Linux software and service provider, is in the process of setting up a regional office in Singapore that will oversee the company's sales efforts in China and India, two of the fastest emerging markets for Linux in the region, said McWithers.

The rollout of Linux-based desktops has done "exceptionally well" in these countries, he explained. Still, he said, the main driver for Linux will come from the business market, where companies will typically have small deployments of Linux in their businesses which will then eventually grow and slowly dominate the companies' IT infrastructure.

"People will download it first and then they will eventually call for support because they'll realise that they're already running their whole enterprise on Linux," he said.


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