Desktop Linux is a reality now

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 to those who dispute Linux's desktop capabilities.


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 Web sites. 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?

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