A realistic exploration of the Desktop Linux opportunity

How often have you dismissed the views expressed by extremists because what they are saying is so far removed from your own position and perceptions? The problem is that while single issue activists can make a lot of noise, they often come across as being out of touch with the complexities of the real world. Indeed, the irony is that when idealism takes precedent over practicality, the cause being promoted is actually far less likely to strike a chord with the mainstream.

And so it has been with open source fundamentalists promoting desktop Linux as an alternative to the traditional Windows client platform. The starting point for the argument is typically that Windows is completely broken and the only reason people carry on using it is because they are lazy or have been brainwashed by the Redmond evil empire. Linux is then positioned as the answer to everyone’s problems based on technical superiority and the righteousness of open source.

It’s clear that a lot of evangelists espousing such views are enthusiasts that have adopted desktop Linux for their own personal use but have little experience of deploying it in a real world business environment. Indeed, locating objective information on the practicalities of using desktop Linux in a mainstream business context can be a challenge.

In order to tackle this problem, we at Freeform Dynamics tracked down over a thousand IT professionals who had done it for real and extracted a range of tips, tricks and traps from them – not at a techie level, but in relation to the scoping and targeting of activity, and how to work around things like application availability and compatibility constraints.

The feedback we received was received was remarkably candid, and confirmed that far from being perfect, desktop Linux brings with it a range of issues that need to be taken into account when considering its use. Nevertheless, there was a strong consensus that if deployed in the right way to the right kinds of user, Linux, and some of the open source applications that are typically used with it, can form a foundation for reducing the total cost of ownership (TCO) of the desktop computing environment.

One of the most interesting parts of the study was the light shed on the question of targeting. While experiences varied between organisations, it was clear that as of today, Linux is most appropriate for deployment to users with relatively simple and predictable requirements, such as transaction workers and general professional users. These groups tend to view the computer on their desk as simply a tool to get their jobs done, so are less likely to resist the change that Linux represents. They also tend to be dependent on a relatively small range of applications which keeps testing, porting and migration costs at a manageable level.

At the other end of the spectrum, the advice from those with experience was that groups to avoid are Windows power users, mobile workers and creative staff, who are much more of a challenge. This is because their needs are generally more demanding, more dynamic and less predictable, and there tends to be a higher degree of reliance on specific applications that not available on Linux.

While thinking about selective targeting based on such observations might seem pretty obvious, it’s all too common to hear desktop Linux being dismissed on the basis that it won’t work for those in finance who are addicted to Excel macros, or those in the marketing department who just couldn’t live without their PowerPoint animations.

The trick is to not to get distracted by such users and explore the possibilities associated with those, for example, who live in the ERP system or some other core application for most of their working day, with minimal requirements for sophisticated document authoring, etc. And in many organisations, these make up the majority of the user population.

If you’re interested in reading more, details of the study, which was sponsored by IBM as part of our Community Research Programme, are written up in a full report which is available for free download here.

Through our research and insights, we help bridge the gap between technology buyers and sellers.