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Linux desktop market still wait-and-see

Linux is thriving, but the perception is that top vendors Red Hat and Novell continue to tread cautiously with a desktop offering. However, news of a new Debian distro in the days leading up to LinuxWorld San Francisco could mean heat ahead.

The solid growth of Linux of late serves to dismiss even the most outrageous of anti-Linux campaigns as more of a dud than FUD.

But what of the much-ballyhooed Linux desktop, which has yet to catch on in the enterprise like its server-side sibling? For the answer, one needs to look no further than the business practices presently adopted by the top two commercial Linux vendors -- Red Hat and Novell.

Ideas International vice president and senior analyst Tony Iams described the practices of these vendors with one word: cautious.

"Vendors involved with Linux [like Red Hat and Novell] have been treading cautiously," Iams said. "They are being careful to avoid getting too far ahead of the demand curve, and they are being careful in how they set up their customers for what they can realistically accomplish with Linux desktops."

This behavior has created a state of limbo where each vendor has been hesitant to be the "first on the block" to aggressively push Linux on the desktop, Iams said. The same can be said for hardware vendors like Hewlett-Packard Co., Dell Inc. and even IBM, he added.

Novell maintains segmented approach to desktop

Even in this environment, where hardware and software vendors gingerly test the desktop demand, Iams said Novell has been a bit more aggressive when compared to Red Hat.

Iams pointed to Novell's two main products, SuSE Linux 9 Pro and Linux Desktop, as examples of how Novell has remained forceful in the retail channel.

"With SuSE Linux 9 Pro things are fairly traditional; with the bells and whistles of a comprehensive desktop package targeted at the Linux enthusiast," he said. "[With] Linux Desktop, the package is intended more for users who need basic functions, and is more applicable in an enterprise where a company wants to replace some core functions."

Iams comments meshed well with those of Novell chairman and CEO Jack Messman, who in November 2004 declared that Novell was taking a more practical approach to the Linux desktop with the release of SuSE Linux Desktop 9.

"Novell Linux Desktop is not about the wholesale replacement of your Windows systems, but rather it's about identifying where and when an open source desktop can be a sensible, cost-effective alternative," Messman said. "In our pragmatic view, the time is now for specific desktop users to reap the benefits of open source."

Messman's comments may have gone against the pop culture belief that Linux is ultimately going to replace the Windows operating system, but many analysts agreed with the approach, including Pund-IT Research principal analyst Charles King.

King said at the time: "Novell knows it can work well here -- small fights first and gradually build up momentum."

For David C. Niemi, an independent consultant and Linux user from Reston, Va., SuSE Linux now holds the "middle ground" between enthusiasts and enterprises that competitor Red Hat left vacant.

Niemi said he believes Novell would continue go head-to-head with Red Hat in the U.S., but the greatest opportunities for growth remain outside the Linux community.

"I don't see [Novell] as a major threat to Red Hat because all the Linux distributions have a modest part of the enterprise market and the greatest opportunities are in converting customers from Microsoft Windows or commercial Unix over to Linux, and also in totally new markets where there is no incumbent," he said.


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It's all business at Red Hat

Iams has observed that Red Hat is carefully watching the market, listening to customer demands and is identifying trends very well. However, like Novell, IBM, HP and others, Red Hat is careful not to push too hard with Red Hat Desktop 9.

The company, he said, has aligned itself very well with the rest of the software industry, and can boast a natural fit with its partners and systems providers.

As a vendor, Red Hat has also tried to keep the focus of its distributions on the commercial side, paying customers who bought support and on small and midsized businesses that did not buy support. The result of this approach, Niemi said, was that Red Hat split its product into two parts, Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and Fedora, to focus individually on these two groups.

"When this arrangement started out there was a lot of doubt about whether it would work, but I think it is fair to say it has been a success -- RHEL has let Red Hat become profitable, while Fedora releases have been fairly good quality despite integrating the newest technologies promptly and having two major releases every year," he said.

The Debian "non-factor"

In light of recent reports that Linux vendor Progeny was forming a consortium of smaller Linux companies to create a new distro based on Debian, Niemi was doubtful that such an endeavor would be a threat to No. 2 Novell, let alone Red Hat.

The Debian Core Consortium is not yet finalized, but could feature contributions from Linspire, Xandros and several other Debian companies in Europe in addition to Progeny.

"Debian is not really a threat to either company anytime soon, as Progeny lacks the marketing and support infrastructure to compete for the enterprise market," Niemi said.

Niemi described Debian as technically a good fit for the enterprise market because of its careful handling of releases and upgrades, but criticized its chances for an enterprise level run because its user base is heavily weighted in the enthusiast arena.

"The [enthusiast trend] will take considerable time and resources to turn that around. I'm not so sure it will ever happen," he said.

Although he was uncertain of Debian's chances, Niemi was confident that there was still room for another Linux distribution in the market so long as it remained fairly compatible with current versions when it comes to running applications.

"There are no major differences, but in order to guarantee correct operation I have seen application distributors compile and test their software specifically for several Red Hat, Fedora, SuSE and Mandrake versions, and sometimes Debian, Niemi said. "This is perhaps more work than it should be, but it is more a matter of support and testing than technical differences."

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