Slow growth on the desktop
Yet, as strong as Linux is in the data center, it's notoriously weak on the desktop. Some PC and netbook vendors ship systems with Linux preinstalled, but sales of these are typically low. Many pundits have pointed to Linux's failure to displace Windows as evidence that it will never succeed as a client-side OS. But are they right?
Where desktop Linux use can be measured, it seems to have found a niche among government agencies and large corporations, which typically enforce strict controls over employee desktops. Programmers also have a natural affinity for the OS, and in many cases they use Linux desktops that have been heavily customized for software development; for example, about half of all Google employees run a custom Linux variant.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that only geeks and specialists use Linux clients. For one thing, it's equally hard to judge the number of desktop Linux installations as it is servers. Because Linux is free and runs well even on older hardware, many hobbyists deploy it themselves. Some might erase another OS to install it, while others may run it using virtualization, further confusing the numbers.
Linux gained some ground as a consumer desktop OS with the debut of Ubuntu, a free distribution that emphasizes ease-of-use and user productivity. Ubuntu is currently the most popular desktop Linux, and founder Mark Shuttleworth has said his goal is to reach 200 million users by 2015.
But that might be wishful thinking. The current figures are much more meager: According to Web analytics firm NetMarketShare, Linux desktops still represent less than 1 percent of the market. If we assume that users do most of their Web browsing from their primary PCs, then Linux doesn't have much hope of gaining traction with consumers. The trouble is, that's an increasingly misguided assumption.
Mobility and beyond
Computing is changing in dramatic ways. More and more, users of all stripes are forgoing the traditional PC desktop in favor of new types of devices, services, and usage modes. For example, in Japan, about half of all personal email is sent or received using a mobile phone, rather than a computer. That trend seems likely to carry over to the West, where smartphone use is rising sharply -- and that's a huge opportunity for Linux.
Of all the smartphones sold in the U.S. market, Android now claims the largest share of any OS, and Android is based on the Linux kernel. So are Nokia's Meego and HP/Palm's WebOS -- which, while nowhere near as successful as Android, have hardly fared worse than Windows Phone 7, though the future of WebOS remains in limbo, in light of HP's recent announcement to halt production of WebOS-based devices. In Korea, Samsung's popular Bada OS also uses the Linux kernel, as does the recently announced Aliyun in China.
What that means is that while desktop Linux use may remain low, as consumers forsake PCs for smartphones, Linux gains while desktop operating systems lose -- including Windows.