% fortune -ae paul murphy

The Linux desktop

As regular readers know there's been a lot of discussion in the talkbacks to this blog lately about two issues: PC style security on MacOS X and out-sourcing. One unanticipated result of all this has been to give me a bit of what I like to think of as insight into why desktop Linux hasn't been more of a success.

Some people, of course, claim that desktop Linux is a stealth success, but two years ago Walmart offered a sub $500 PC with Linux pre-installed, now they have a Microsoft Store and offer Windows NT 4.0 Professional on refurbished 900Mhz P3 Thinkpads for $482.

The most commonly stated reason for not pursuing a Linux desktop strategy in business or government organizations is that key open source applications don't measure up to Microsoft's proprietary ones on functionality and ease of. I think, however, that this is something everybody says and nobody knows. In fact, if it were actually possible to do an objective evaluation, I think it would show that the differences go both ways and are essentially negligible as decision factors.

Beyond that the reasons you hear or see cited most often for the apparent failure of desktop Linux to achieve significant market share are:

  1. That the people who sell and support desktops at the local level make more short term money on a Windows/XP installation than on Linux and have better long term social and economic prospects supporting Windows than Linux;

  2. That the Linux community focuses on Linux, not business desktop users;

  3. That business users tend to seek social conformity in Windows; and,

  4. That each Windows upgrade has strengthened the customer's natural tendency to fear, and therefore resist, change.

I believe that each of these explanations for market behaviour has validity, but even taken all together I don't think they add up to a sufficient explanation.

So what else is there?

I think the outsourcing discussion shows that there's an elephant in the room: something everybody knows and nobody wants to talk about. Specifically: the invincible ignorance of the non technical decision maker who considers computers nerdish and therefore socially untouchable while treating people like Bill Gates and Michael Dell as heros of American business acumen. Talk to these people, whether they're involved with a small business, a professional firm, or government, about desktop Linux and you'll be immediately categorised as on the wrong side of a social divide -and it's not because you're talking Linux, it's because you're challenging their self-image by talking about computers at all.

These are the people who treat Wintel as given and thereby make it possible for those who sell or support IT to make money selling what they're buying, and thereby incidently block what they're not buying: desktop Linux.

So what will it take to break past that barrier? I don't think better software or increased compatibility will have any effect: playing follow the leader, anoints the other guy as leader. More importantly, client-server is client-server, and whether you implement that idea with Windows desktops or Linux ones fundamentally doesn't make a lot of difference.

Sure the Linux deployment will be cheaper, and generally somewhat faster and more reliable on the same hardware, but telling that to people who pigeon hole you as from the wrong side of the social register the instant you mention computing is a mugs game: one you can't win.

What's needed is an end to client-server, a revolution they can't ignore: Sun Ray.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specialising in Unix and Unix-related management issues.