In his recent article, Michael Gartenberg claimed that Linux is still far from making it on the desktop. As someone who has tracked Linux’s progress since 1991 and the progress of the IT industry since 1979, I would like to offer an alternative perspective.
While Microsoft presently sits in a commanding position on the desktop, it got there by eclipsing the previous PC platform incumbent, and there is every possibility that it too, will in time be eclipsed.
Indeed, desktop Linux is now in consideration for an increasing number of mainstream users. It has rated feature articles in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and hundreds of other mainstream publications globally. In recent years, Linux has acquired an interface that is sufficiently familiar to desktop PC users.
It is now easier to install than Windows, and Linux applications are also easier to acquire and maintain than their Windows counterparts. A sizable minority of users are now able to migrate all their important data and documents and to have Linux fulfil their day-to-day desktop application requirements.
But if desktop Linux is a real contender, why has it not snared a larger slice of the market?
In short, inertia.
Desktop operating systems and applications are the hardest piece of software to displace, as the biggest impediment to change is user reaction, with the next two factors being application programming interfaces and data/document format lock-in. Linux has to surmount all three to make any visible progress.
In an open and free market for PCs, unencumbered by the tilted playing field of forced bundling of Windows, we could perhaps see 10 percent of consumers opting for Linux. This penetration, once reached, would provide a beachhead for Linux to aim for the 30 percent of the market that constitutes a recognised inflection point. This is pretty much what happened with the open-source Firefox browser.
Firefox pushed against the inertia of an entrenched competitor, Internet Explorer, which came bundled on almost every PC shipped, and the lock-in of IE-only websites. Once Firefox established a foothold, lock-in began to ease, which reduced the barriers to Firefox adoption. A virtuous cycle started that yielded even further adoption, so Firefox now has a 28 percent market-share in Europe. In time, Linux will undergo a similar pattern of market penetration.
Gartenberg argues that: "Unfortunately, despite major strides in recent years - notably the Ubuntu release - Linux still isn’t viable for most end users or organisations." This may be an accurate statement, but let’s look at just who Linux might be viable for. Who knows? We may surprise ourselves as to how big a market opportunity is available to Linux today.
There are approximately one billion PCs in use worldwide. For argument’s sake, let’s say 90 percent must use Microsoft Windows for one reason or another. That still leaves a vast market for desktop Linux - over 100 million, in fact. To put things into perspective, the total number of Windows PCs was probably less than 100 million a mere 12 years ago, and that was considered a huge mainstream success, worth the attention of independent software and hardware vendors alike.
And what about the majority who continue to use Windows? How many of them need to use Windows for all their PC needs? How many of them would be amenable to using Windows in a virtualisation session? Modern hardware would certainly allow for such use. How many of them have access to multiple PCs at home or at work? How many would be amenable to using Linux for their second system, if they understood there were certain advantages in specific scenarios?
But what scenarios? Why should the average user, comfortable with Windows, even bother with Linux? Here are a few solid reasons:
- Whatever the actual reasons, there’s no escaping the reality that Linux desktops are substantially more secure than Windows. Privacy of data and avoidance of key loggers are serious issues, and Linux delivers great benefits here.
- Linux and open-source software can save the average household thousands of dollars in both software costs and through hardware life extension. The bottom line matters even more at home, and the more that proprietary vendors clamp down on piracy, the more users will flock to open-source software.
- Unlike Windows, Linux doesn’t suffer from bit-rot - there’s rarely a need to wipe and reinstall Linux due to gradual system degradation. Simple users want a PC that "just works" once installed. Linux does exactly that.
- Linux desktops bundled with open-source software are easier to install and maintain, saving most users days, if not weeks, of time. Unified package management and system updates are a revelation to Windows users once they experience the Linux way of life.
- Linux won’t stop working due to a hiccup with product activation failing to phone home. Linux won’t go behind your back and make system changes that you explicitly asked it not to. Windows will.
- Linux will not prevent you from playing whatever movies you want to watch, nor music you want to listen to. Digital rights management is anathema to the core Linux and open-source ethos of user freedom.
In the end, it’s this freedom offered by Linux that will be the siren call heard loudest by users. As proprietary platforms become more about what the user is not allowed to do, Linux will be the system to which an increasing number will turn to regain their freedom.
And computing freedom, like freedom in general, is something that people only come to understand through osmosis — by seeing what it gives others. The more people adopt Linux and come to understand what computing freedom means, the faster that realisation will propagate to everyone, creating an unstoppable shift in the industry.
Con Zymaris is CEO of Cybersource, and director of Open Source Industry Australia.