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Is Linux dead for the desktop?

John Brandon | July 9, 2014
For executives in charge of desktop deployments in a large company, Linux OS was once hailed as a savior for corporate end users. With incredibly low pricing -- free, with fee-based support plans, for example -- distributions such as Ubuntu Desktop and SUSE Linux Enterprise offered a "good enough" user interface, along with plenty of powerful apps and a rich browser.

Part of the issue, of course, is the economy of scale. There's no hint of Linux on the HP or Dell home pages, and the site is really just a compatibility list. Andre Kindness, a Forrester analyst who studies IT infrastructure and operations, says there could be growth in more "packaged" offers with Linux OS and apps bundled on a desktop, but large companies probably won't bite.

The main issue, he says, is that business users need IT services delivered now, with a clean user interface and just-in-time software that's easy to use. They prove their impatience with anything overly complicated by finding their own workarounds.

David Johnson, another Forrester analyst who studies IT trends says, "The Linux developer community does amazing things, and Linux developers thrive on contributing things as individuals who help expand their own learning and competency as they help various projects, and those things may or may not align with what corporate end users really need. What corporate end users really need is familiarity, consistency and compatibility — something ... Apple, Microsoft and Google seem more adept at offering."

Can Desktop Linux OS Be Saved?

Johnson says the best example of how to save Linux OS is the Chrome OS, an all-in-one laptop and desktop offering available through major consumer electronics companies such as LG (with their Chromebase all-in-one) and the Samsung Chromebook 2. End users are completely insulated from the file system (although it's still available if you know the right browser command), they don't have to learn complex open source apps that work "almost" like their Windows cousins, and they are incredibly easy to support from an IT perspective. (In fact, with the new Google Chromebox for Meetings, you can pay $250 annually and have Google handle the tech support.)

The problem is that Chrome OS and Android aren't the same as Linux OS on the desktop. It's a complete reinvention. There are few Windows-like productivity apps and no knowledge worker apps designed for keyboard and mouse. The most prominent player in Linux desktop installs, Canonical, has nothing to do with Android or Chrome and seems to have moved on to the smartphone field. (Canonical did not respond to requests for an interview.)  

"Moral of the story: There's no money in selling the Linux OS to desktop PC users. You have to reinvent the way people work, and that's not something I think Canonical is in a position to do," Johnson says. "It's not currently commercially viable for companies like Dell or HP to offer a Linux desktop option. They don't make more money on the hardware and the support for the OS is expensive — including drivers, testing, and support."


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