Red Hat CEO questions desktop's relevance in Linux debate

New paradigms, such as cloud computing, are changing the desktop scene, CEO Jim Whitehurst argues

Linux has achieved success on servers, but can it make a go of it on the desktop? Panelists at a technical conference Tuesday evening debated the question, with a Red Hat official wondering whether the issue is even relevant anymore.

Representatives from organizations such as Red Hat, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and Fidelity Information Services offered perspectives on Linux and open source on the desktop during a session at the InfoWorld Open Source Business Conference (OSBC) in San Francisco. The session was entitled "End Users and Linux: Do We Have a Participation Problem?".

[ Related: "Desktop Linux: Ready for the mainstream." | Follow the latest news and trends in open source with InfoWorld's Open Sources blog. | Read about the very best open source software products in InfoWorld's Best of Open Source Software Awards 2008. ]

Red Hat's CEO Jim Whitehurst pointed out several issues with running Linux on the desktop, including financial concerns the company has as a Linux vendor.

"First of all, I don't know how to make money on it," Whitehurst said. "Very few people are running a desktop that's mission-critical," so they do not want to pay the company for a desktop OS, he said.

There is some money in the Linux desktop, but not much, Whitehurst said. "We do have a desktop [version of Linux], but we typically sell it to big server customers who want some desktops." Red Hat offers its Red Hat Enterprise Desktop product, but Whitehurst added he was uncertain how relevant the desktop itself will be in five years, with the advent of concepts such as cloud-based and smartphone computing and VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure).

"The concept of a desktop is kind of ridiculous in this day and age," said Whitehurst. "I'd rather think about skating to where the puck is gong to be than where it is now," he said, using a hockey analogy.

Interoperability issues also are a hindrance, according to Whitehurst. "There's a reason Microsoft doesn't want to certify Evolution [a Linux mail client] hooking into [Microsoft's mail server] Exchange," he said. Microsoft has key control points locked up on the desktop, he said,

"There's a desire [to use desktop Linux] but practicality sets in," said panelist Vinod Kutty, associate director of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. "There are significant barriers to switching."

Even Linux developers he has known prefer a Macintosh to a Linux desktop, Kutty said.

Another panelist, Timothy Golden, senior vice president for Unix engineering, security, and provisioning at Bank of America, concurred with Whitehurst. "I have to agree with Jim on this one," he said. How people view the desktop is going to change, said Whitehurst.

But another panelist, K.S. Bhaskar, senior vice president of Fidelity Information Services, gave a thumbs-up to Linux on the desktop, adding that his family even uses it at home.

"I kicked the Windows habit 10 years ago," Bhaskar said. "In the group that I have at work, Linux is our primary desktop that we've been using since 2000," he said.

An industry analyst in the audience agreed with the panel's skepticism toward desktop Linux. "I think they're right, there are barriers to adoption," said analyst Tim Clark, partner at The FactPoint Group.

Earlier in the day, Novell CEO Ron Hovsepian was optimistic about Linux on the desktop, particularly on netbooks.

Panelists also discussed topics such as whether the economic downturn was good for open source. The downturn has benefitted open source because it gets people to try new things, Whitehurst said. Many new projects are getting done on Linux, he said.

Prior to the panel session, Whitehurst gave a speech proclaiming the economic situation as a "fantastic time for open source."

"I almost feel bad," because open source software proponents profit from other people's misery," Whitehurst said. In tough economic times, "people get out of their comfort zone," he said. Companies that would never have considered open source are now looking at Red Hat, said Whitehurst. He added a significant chunk of Red Hat's revenue has come from Unix to Linux conversions.

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