The cost issue: "Free" Linux isn't the whole story
Having weighed all that, then, a potential desktop Linux customer's second question -- how much money will I save? -- can often be simplified even further: Will it be worth it?
Answering this question, however, can be incredibly difficult. The factors involved in calculating TCO (total cost of ownership) for an entire desktop OS environment, applications and all, are so numerous and complex that you might as well read tea leaves.
Just knowing when to switch can be tricky. Jumping ship to desktop Linux often means abandoning proprietary software licenses that have already been paid for. Depending on where an organization is in its normal upgrade cycle, that license issue could represent a significant hidden short-term cost.
Once the switch to open source is complete, the days of paying license fees will be over, but most enterprise customers will still want to pay for a support contract. How effective such support is at responding to any issues that may arise will determine how much those issues impact productivity -- and, by extension, the business's bottom line.
Some customers may prefer to do a "soft launch" -- switching some PCs to Linux while leaving Windows on others, for example, or using virtualization software to run key Windows applications. But this kind of hybrid environment requires IT to manage two OSes at the same time -- including user support, software updates, security, backups, and interoperability between the systems. And that drives up costs.
At the end of the day, on a per-head basis, the amount an enterprise spends on proprietary software licenses is insignificant compared to the amount it spends on salaries, health care, phone bills, travel, retirement plans, and other benefits. For a cash-strapped company in a down economy, Windows may be the least of its worries. The harsh reality is that, from an operations perspective, it may be much simpler and safer to cut costs by reducing staff than to implement a radical and disruptive enterprise-wide IT initiative.
Does desktop Linux matter? Here's how it might
Far from it being a simple case of FUD clouding the waters, the issues surrounding Linux's failure to achieve mainstream success on the desktop are complex, far-reaching, and diverse. It's such a thorny problem, in fact, that the chance of Linux taking Windows' place on the enterprise desktop is virtually nil.
But maybe it doesn't need to be.
Computing today is in a state of flux. The proliferation of broadband Internet access has made possible new modes of operation that were unthinkable even a decade ago. Increasingly, traditional desktop applications are migrating to the Web, and the rise of cloud computing means their data is going with them. Soon, typical computer users may be able to work almost entirely online, using nothing but a Web browser.
That's great news for Linux -- today's desktop Linux distributions offer browsers already. But the issue is actually bigger than that. As Jim Zemlin of the Linux Foundation put it at the recent Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit, "It's time to start asking yourselves: What is the desktop?"
As apps and data move into the cloud, the traditional PC metaphors are beginning to lose their relevance. We're entering the age of the invisible PC: a world where Windows may soon seem as archaic and limiting as the mainframes of yesterday. The new computing model is extending the digital workspace beyond the desktop to a range of new devices -- including smartphones, netbooks, and gadgets not even invented yet. Some of these devices run Linux now, and many more will in the future. The value proposition of open source for hardware manufacturers is such that Linux's future as a vital, thriving client-side OS is all but assured. It just won't be on the desktop.
The Year of the Linux Desktop isn't coming. But the Year of the Linux Client may already be here.