Linux and the Enterprise Desktop, Revisited

By Paul Rubens (Send Email)
Posted Sep 17, 2008


Paul Rubens
Linux has made steady progress infiltrating the data center as a server operating system, but so far it has been far less successful as an enterprise desktop operating system. At first glance that seems strange: Linux has the reputation for being faster, thinner, more stable and cheaper than Windows, so why wouldn't every organization want to run it on its desktops?

Operating System Roundup: It's getting increasingly harder to blame Microsoft for Linux's lack of success with the desktop market. Can the culprit be Linux itself?

Of course, there are plenty that do run Linux on the desktop, but the exact number of Linux desktops is impossible to quantify because a single copy of a distro can be downloaded by an organization and then installed on multiple machines. But outside of the IT departments, in the offices where the business gets done, anecdotal evidence suggests the proportion of organizations in the United States using Linux as a standard desktop operating system is less than 1 percent.

In the past, Microsoft squeezed other operating systems out by insisting OEMs pay for a copy of its Windows operating system for every system they sold, regardless of whether the operating system was supplied.

Enterprise Unix Roundup

When this practice was stamped out, Microsoft took another tack, warning OEMs not to "hurt" their customers by supplying them with PCs with no operating system. "Think of selling a house without a roof — selling your customers Naked PCs leaves them equally exposed," Microsoft said. "If you allow your customers to buy Naked PCs — placing them at risk of acquiring pirated operating systems elsewhere — you expose them to legal risks, viruses, and frustrating technical troubles ...."

But these days, the barriers to adopting desktop Linux have largely gone. Many OEMs are happy to sell you a naked PC, and it's also easy to get machines with Linux pre-installed from major vendors like Lenovo, HP and Dell. IBM is even in cahoots with OEMs and the likes of Red Hat and Canonical (the sponsor of Ubuntu) to ensure new machines with Linux and a whole stack of desktop productivity software like Lotus Notes, Symphony and SameTime will be available to anyone who wants them.

But very few organizations, it seems, actually do.

One of the biggest problems is that Linux isn't Windows. Not that Windows is "great software," as Microsoft would have you believe. It's more that it looks nice, and it's familiar. A whole generation of office workers has gone through school learning how to use computers with Windows, and overwhelmingly that's what they have at home as well. Three or four in every hundred may have a Mac, and the odd one or two may even have used Ubuntu or something similar. But by and large they'll be familiar with Windows, and only Windows.

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It's certainly true that many Linux distros look very Windows-like indeed, but Ubuntu project founder Mark Shuttleworth tacitly admits that desktop Linux doesn't look as polished as XP or Vista, and it isn't as intuitive to use. "We are hiring designers, user experience champions and interaction design visionaries and challenging them to lead not only Canonical's distinctive projects but also to participate in GNOME, KDE and other upstream efforts to improve FLOSS usability," he says on his blog.

Until FLOSS becomes more usable, as Shuttleworth puts it, the fear in many organizations is that unlearning the Windows habits of a lifetime and learning new Linux ones will simply take too long. A couple of hours of lost productivity making the switch and any savings made by running Linux could go straight down the drain — so why take the risk? And your average office PC user is not interested in moving to a technically superior operating system anyway — as far as he is concerned there's not that much wrong with Windows (although if it crashed a little less often then that would be nice.)

This might also go a long way in explaining why Vista is so unpopular in the enterprise: It takes some getting used to, and the benefits compared to XP are difficult to see.

Linux may well be a great desktop operating. It may make perfect sense in some enterprise environments, and it may also be ideal for companies moving to a server-based IT infrastructure with virtual desktops or virtualized apps. But there's still a long way go in terms of improving look and feel before the predominant sound you hear in the morning in the office is anything but the annoying tinkles and chimes of Windows starting up.

Paul Rubens is an IT consultant and journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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