Tony Iams understands the Linux desktop market. And to him, it's really a mixed bag.
A vice president and senior analyst with Ideas International in Port Chester, N.Y., Iams has spent 13-plus years evaluating and contrasting the features and functionality of the leading operating systems. Despite years of hearing that a Linux on the desktop explosion was just on the horizon, he said the market has yet to take off. But that's just half of the story.
What Linux loyalists might see as "the good news" is that the typical Linux desktop distribution has become highly reliable and rich in capabilities, Iams said. And what's more, today there are more applications to run on desktop Linux than ever before -- and they're getting better, too.
SearchEnterpriseLinux.com caught up with Iams recently to get a holistic view of the Linux desktop market from users to vendors. In part one, the analyst describes the overall progress of Linux on the desktop thus far, and talks a little about how the leading Linux desktop offerings -- Red Hat and Novell -- stack up.
How is the Linux desktop market progressing today?
Tony Iams: Well, slowly. It has been progressing slowly. Every year seems to be the year where widespread adoption of Linux on the desktop is just around the corner. What is clear is from a technology standpoint is that some amazing progress has been made. If you look at the capabilities of desktop Linux today in terms of ease-of-use, in terms of the productivity applications that are available, it's very clear that the development community has invested huge resources in delivering something that is usable by typical end users. There are some terrific Linux desktop products out there today. What I still don't see emerging quite yet is widespread demand. But clearly there are some users that are very interested in running Linux on the desktop.
What types of companies do those "very interested" users work for? Is there a typical profile of a Linux desktop user organization?
Iams: You really have to break it down by market segment. In large organizations that have desktops with very tightly defined functions -- limited functions for very specific applications -- there is interest in using Linux as a foundation.
Do those dedicated applications tend to be homegrown?
Iams: Yes. That's true. [They include] in-house applications, or very limited function [applications], where you really don't need that broad spectrum of functional capabilities [like] multimedia and so on. All of the things that you can do on a typical Windows PC, those really aren't necessary for a lot of corporate users, especially in larger enterprises because you tend to have rigid job functions there.
What about smaller companies?
Iams: When you get down to the small and medium businesses and consumer segments, those workloads are much more driven by applications, by specific applications. The application portfolio on Linux continues to grow and many developers target Linux, [but] other systems like Windows still have the majority of applications. A lot of [those applications] have not been ported to Linux. If your business depends on that [unsupported] application, it's not feasible to migrate without significant investments in re-porting the application, retraining your users and so on. So, small and medium business tends to be application driven, and since Windows still has the majority of applications, that is a major strength for it.
How do Red Hat's and Novell's compare on the desktop? Iams: Novell is being a little bit more aggressive because they actually have several offerings there. They have the SuSE Enterprise Linux 9 Professional, which is in the retail channel. Red Hat has more or less gotten out of the retail channel, but SuSE Linux is still in there. That means you can go to CompUSA and it's on the shelf. Red Hat isn't really interested in that for now.
[Red Hat has] Red Hat Enterprise Linux, which you can certainly run on the desktop. And they have Fedora, which they target at sort of the power user that has traditionally used Linux on the desktop.
Novell has SuSE Enterprise Linux 9 Professional, which is also targeted at those enthusiasts, and then they have the Novell Linux Desktop, which is more for enterprise users -- users that only require basic functionality and are mostly concerned with integrating it into a larger IT infrastructure. So, Novell has more choices and packages for the desktop than Red Hat, and [Novell] also benefits from some technology they've acquired.
Which technology is that? Iams: The Ximian Desktop, for example, is something that Novell bought a couple of years ago. That included Evolution, which is a messaging and groupware application that is compatible with Exchange. And then they have something called Red Carpet, which is a software management tool. Those are both very valuable for helping to integrate a Linux desktop into existing messaging infrastructures that are based on Exchange. And it also makes it easier to manage the software updates that those desktops require.
Of Novell and Red Hat, which one is most likely to crack the SMB market? Iams: Novell has a rich portfolio of desktop products and functions. And they're potentially in a stronger position than Red Hat to drive into those SMB-type environments because their NetWare operating system has long been used in SMB environments. Novell is now in the process of turning those users over to Linux by migrating the NetWare file and print sharing services over to Linux. That could in turn encourage the redeployment of some of those SMB applications that were formerly based on NetWare. Those would now be based on Linux. That could give Novell a foothold in SMB environments, where the desktop, again, plays a really significant role.
Be sure to read part two of "Sizing up the Linux desktop market," where Tony Iams talks about non-commercial Linux desktop offerings and names one up-and-coming vendor to keep an eye on.