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Corporate America's Cruel Linux Hoax

By Elbert Hannah
Aug 31, 2010 5:00 AM PT

Corporate America is playing a cruel joke on Linux desktop. Businesses benefit from free Linux, improving their bottom line on the shoulders of Linux -- all the while ignoring (and damaging I think) the Linux desktop.

Corporate America's Cruel Linux Hoax

Linux servers toil in back rooms bringing big bucks to companies smart enough to use them. What do these companies install on their employees' desktops? Windows, of course! It is no small irony that some (if not most) of Linux's biggest beneficiaries are Linux desktop's worst sponsors.

This hardly seems fair, and worse, seems almost unethical. The ultimate irony is that Corporate America spurns a technology it loves -- a technology poised to reap benefits much like the benefits of Linux servers.

Why Windows? Why Not Linux?

The last time I looked for a job, it had been so long since I last looked I figured the chances were good I could land a position somewhere where Linux was the desktop for employees. I quickly learned it was Windows everywhere.

Sure, all of the companies I talked to used Linux heavily -- that's why I considered them -- but not one of them installed Linux desktop on employees' computers. Wow. (Disclaimer: My employer now does provide Linux as desktop of choice to some staff, but it's still predominantly Windows.)

I attribute this locked-in corporate platform choice to two things: inertia and momentum. The inertia lies with companies -- it's something we can change. Microsoft has the momentum -- that's something we can (must?) stop.

Corporate Inertia

Corporate inertia manifests in companies with top-to-bottom Microsoft solutions. From email to calendars to office productivity suites, companies choose Microsoft. While it may seem that an everything-from-one-vendor solution is the best approach, it ignores too many other factors.

Consider for one moment that it's possible Microsoft doesn't make the best mail server. Or that it isn't the best for calendar management. We already know it's playing catchup with search.

Companies should consider alternatives. It fosters more competition. Competition brings better products. It encourages interoperability. And it provides for choice when a product is not performing up to needs.

The desktop is a prime candidate for moving to something new. In many ways, the desktop serves as a shell or scaffolding onto which all other tools are installed. A Linux desktop provides the same functional scaffolding as Windows. Toss in flexibility and "free" -- it's hard to imagine not trying it.

And those tools you're used to using in Windows? There's an open source equivalent for virtually all of them. Ahem... that means they're free! Oh, and they're typically part of the Linux distribution. Yes, you get the platform and the tools in one broad stroke! Except that the pre-installed tools on Linux Desktop don't ask you to buy a license after 30 days. Seems worth a try.

Microsoft Momentum

I'm not sure if momentum is the right word to describe Microsoft's world domination in corporate desktops. If keeping an eagle eye on its market and ensuring no big "partners" (e.g., school systems, small governments, et al.) stray far from the fold is motion, then that is their momentum.

When governments consider a switch, Microsoft is quick to counter. Organizations in full stride of a conversion (say, to Linux desktop?) have been corralled back to Microsoft products with swift counters and sweet licensing proposals. Microsoft doesn't like to lose customers.

Microsoft's momentum also comes courtesy of locked-in formats. Ironically, Microsoft's compatibility with its own products sets the bar low. Unfortunately for open source alternatives, a colleague being unable to open your incompatible document form office suite is a transgression. The same scenario with two employees' incompatible formats from Microsoft Office elicits shrugs. So, more ironically, the perception that it's best to stay with Microsoft for compatible formats is faux.

As long as Microsoft has its (approximately) US$40 billion cash cache, it holds the upper hand in controlling its momentum. It's up to us to learn to say no to its all too often too-good-to-be-true promises.

We can break or slow down this momentum by using something else. We don't even have to do something free like Linux, but why would we not at least try? Breaking Microsoft's momentum is ultimately good for everyone.

First Steps

So what can we do? I propose companies take a closer look at the Linux desktop and consider its potential return juxtaposed with the return they see from Linux servers in the back room. If they can save money and make money from Linux servers, surely they can see potential returns by using Linux desktop.

We could try creating a pilot project. There are willing and eager volunteers in almost any technical company just waiting for their chance to switch. Pick a technically savvy but not elitist group and turn them loose with Linux desktop. (It's important not to go with the technical elitists -- potential converts will ignore their testimonials as "meh.")

Try out some of the tools that would be part of the Linux desktop on Windows first. Most Linux desktop applications have some corresponding version for Windows. This allows for testing the waters before jumping in.

It might even bring unexpected and surprising savings as intermediate replacements for expensive commercial software. My favorite is OpenOffice. I set my default save format to Microsoft documents and recipients never know the difference. The difference is my software was free.

Linux Desktop Needs a Sponsor

We all predict, snipe about, moan over, rationalize and anticipate the "Year of the Linux Desktop." Really! Ask anyone, and they'll confirm that each of the last 10 years was the Year of the Linux Desktop. Right. History suggests this special year won't happen on its own, not even for excellent Linux. Not without help.

Linux desktop needs help! And Corporate America has all necessary resources to effect the sea change where Linux Desktop replaces Windows. People use at home what they use at work! They don't have time at home to test the Linux waters. They don't have vendors to sell them Linux in a box. They barely know what Linux even is.

The day companies get serious about Linux desktop is the day people start to know what Linux desktop is. The day companies embrace Linux desktop is the day people need Linux at home too. The day companies see the Linux desktop as a powerful and valuable resource could be the first day of the ever elusive "Year of the Linux Desktop."

Are we expecting too much from Corporate America? If businesses makes money (lots of) with Linux servers, do they have any implied moral or ethical obligation to invest in Linux desktop? Or can we make the case that -- obligations aside -- it makes good financial and business sense to use Linux Desktop?

I think the answer is somewhere in between. But until Corporate America does show more commitment to making Linux desktop viable (aka "Year of the Linux Desktop"), I think Corporate America plays a cruel joke at Linux desktop's expense.

Elbert Hannah lives in the Chicago area and does production and scheduling support for a large financial firm. He wrote the most recent edition of O'Reilly's Learning the vi and Vim Editors. He has used Linux and worked actively in the open source community for over 10 years. In and around the house, he has more than 10 instances of Linux and as many versions and distros. He doesn't like technical religious wars and prefers things to be sorted out by merit. He loves the Beatles and thinks the greatest album recorded is Abbey Road.

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