Major vendors to push Linux to the desktop

IBM, HP, Dell, Novell try to edge in while industry waits for Longhorn

Next year just may be the year that desktop Linux emerges as a viable alternative to Windows.

Inspired by stirrings among corporate users for desktop Linux and with Microsoft’s forthcoming Longhorn operating system not expected on desktops until 2005, IBM, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, and Dell are augmenting their corporate Linux desktop wares. Novell and Red Hat also are assembling Linux desktops. 

IBM’s Global Services unit, for instance, intends to put in place next year a broad-based technical support program for Linux on corporate desktops.

What figures to add even more momentum is that HP and Dell are expected to announce technical support programs early next year, according to an industry executive familiar with both companies’ plans, who requested anonymity.

“You are going to see similar announcements from HP and Dell around the [late January] LinuxWorld timeframe. If IBM is going to stand behind Linux on the desktop, that is something those two will have to do as well,” the source said.

Sun, too, has been pushing desktop Linux and its StarOffice suite.

“Customers now have a few strong reasons to consider alternatives to Windows desktops,” said Hal Stern, CTO of Sun Services.

First, the cost of Microsoft software and licensing terms are considerably higher than that for Linux, Stern said. Second, desktop and user provisioning with Linux has improved. And third, a proliferation of stateless clients, such as Sun Ray systems, offers users non-Windows choices for desktops.

Red Hat, for its part, is taking steps toward a widespread desktop offering. 

“You don’t see a lot of companies making a conversion to Linux desktops across administrative staff and general employees. But you’ll see a lot more of that in 2004. I think it will get enormous momentum in 2005,” said John Young, Red Hat’s vice president of marketing.

In the meantime, Red Hat is working to better integrate Linux with existing infrastructure products.

“There are still a lot of improvements we can make to the desktop environment, and we are focusing on things like better security and profile management,’’ Young said.

IBM officials said some large accounts are interested in desktop Linux as part of a broader plan to change their overall architecture and lower total cost of ownership.

“No question there is an increase in the inquiries about Linux on the desktop,” said Scott Handy, vice president of IBM’s Linux strategy and market development. “Most users will swap out a Windows desktop for Linux as part of a three- to five-year architectural change, not a one-year decision to save money in 2004.”

Perhaps the most intriguing possibility for a stronger Linux desktop environment, however, lies with Novell and its plans to tie together its stable of server-based applications and services with the newly acquired SuSE version of Linux and Ximian’s Linux desktop and management software.

“There are some pretty interesting things we could do in terms of integrating [SuSE Linux and Ximian Desktop 2.0] as a way to offer better solutions and better hardware interoperability. We intend to deliver on that soon,” said Nat Friedman, vice president of product development at Novell’s Ximian group.

Sources said that once the acquisition is finalized early next year, the company will tightly stitch the Ximian Desktop with an enhanced version of SuSE 9.0, which would enable smooth connections to Novell’s GroupWise collaboration server, ZENworks resource manager, and security and integration products. The company also claimed that it will more than double the number of engineers working on the Ximian Desktop and will focus on improving the Gnome desktop environment, the OpenOffice suite, and Mozilla browser.

“The best way to compete on the [Linux] desktop is to offer an end-to-end architecture that works across handhelds, desktops, and servers,” said Dana Gardner, a senior analyst at The Yankee Group.

Furthermore, the confluence of Linux vendors’ efforts may prove to be well-timed. While Microsoft’s much-heralded next-generation Windows, code-named Longhorn, is not expected to hit corporate desktops until late 2005, the time is ripe for desktop Linux to blossom.

“Given Longhorn’s time line and some of the traction we are seeing for Linux

on desktops, the [Linux vendors] have a good shot at getting more firmly planted there,” said Stephen O’Grady, senior analyst at RedMonk.

Underscoring that, IDC expects that by early 2004 Linux will take the No. 2 spot behind Microsoft in the desktop fray. 

“We have projected that Linux will be a mainstream platform by 2005 on servers, but we are also thinking that desktop acceptance will only trail slightly behind [servers] in that timeframe,” said Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of IDC’s system software research.

But the nagging lack of applications for desktop Linux, notably Microsoft Office, still hangs in the air. Many users would like to switch, but the applications, particularly in vertical areas, are not available.

“Because of the nature of our business, which is oil and gas, we’re at the mercy of what is available on

the desktop, and those applications are all on Windows,” said Brian Baldwin, manager of IS at Enerplus Resources Fund.

Baldwin added that as the programs Enerplus needs, such as geographic information systems-based and reservoir management software, are moved to Linux, the open source platform could be more practicable.

“We’re looking for value on the desktop, so if there is a compelling reason to use something [other than Windows], we’d look at it,” Baldwin said.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.