Corporate America’s Cruel Linux Hoax

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.

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.


  • I love how some think you can just magically drop Linux in and all will be hearts and sunshine, do you HONESTLY think if it was anywhere near that easy corps wouldn’t have tried it? Linux succeeds in servers because they are controlled by these things called "admins" that have actual educations built around that OS and are paid big bucks to remain current.

    Here is some of the "fun" you would have replacing windows with Linux on a corporate desktop-Retraining, Oh Lord is THAT one gonna cost you! The workers know MS Office like the back of their hand, despite the sugar coating OO.o is NOT MS Office, and any Excel Junkie will tell you other than Writer it isn’t even up to MS Office 97 yet.

    Then there are the "mission critical" apps and macros, most of which will have NO Linux equivalent. So enjoy the money sink there and maybe with enough $$$ you can have new ones written, that is of course if your supplier doesn’t have patents on the software that makes any attempts to clone it a litigation minefield.

    Hardware and vendor support? Try none whatsoever. Most corps aren’t buying expensive workstations for the typing pool, they are buying dirt cheap Dells and HPs, and guess what? Those have NO Linux drivers! Yay! And who is gonna support it? Canonical? Not likely as they will probably sub contract it, no support equals no sale in corporate land.

    So I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but Windows rules the corporate land not because they like buying Windows licenses, but because the OS and software are pretty low on the price list when it comes to corporate purchases. Support, training, mission critical apps, all these things are much more important. And MCSEs are a dime a dozen, Linux gurus? Short supply and damned expensive.

  • In the years that IBM was running commercials on TV for Linux servers, Linux was not ready for the Desktop.

    Now IBM is not running any commercials for Linux. There is the first problem. IBM, Redhat, Canonical? Any cash for a Super-bowl advert this year?

    Retail big box stores are not interested in Linux. Your average distro supplies tons of free software that they want to sell to people. Did anyone see a Linux eeePC in any big box store?

    A commercial linking the server market to the desktop market is needed. Then we may see some action.

    How about a commercial showing a young child learning with TUXmath, or TUXtype?

    And then there is the grandparents who find the gnome desktop so much easier to understand.

    A TV ad that can follow that one would be a middle age son or daughter complaining that Mom dose not call as often because her computer works so well since Linux was installed.

    BTW IBM has just recently made Linux the standard Desktop in the company. That would make an interesting commercial.

    There is lots to draw from, someone has to do it.

  • djohnston,

    Mr. Hannah was entirely correct to use "effect" to mean "to bring about" or "cause." You, on the other hand, completely misuse "affect" to mean the same thing.

  • Mr. Hannah,

    First, you are living in Chicago and can’t find a shop running Linux on the Desktop? Try the financial district tending to the CBOT. There are several firms that have acres of glass sporting of all things — Ubuntu.

    As to your article proper. I think you miss both the gravity of the situation and the scope. I worked for a Fortune 10 Comm company as a desktop planner. Trust me when I say that all that sits on the desktop, the purchase cost of the hardware only ranks around line item number 6 or 7. And the OS, its cost consideration is down there about number 12-13. The lions share is support costs, maintenance. labor, another words all expense items. That metric won’t change regardless of whether the OS is free or not.

    There is also another consideration. Businesses are a conservative lot. One of which is, especially for large firms, that you shove business risk onto your vendor(s) — by contract. Who is going to accept that risk for Linux? Don’t say Red Hat, they don’t do desktop. Only one firm I know has ponied up to accept that risk transfer was HP. That was for a very specific case of the SCO litigation. Microsoft within certain limits accepts that risk for their products backend or desktop. For a large firm that means the convenience of one chicken to choke. That alone has immeasurable value to a firm.

    The next item is support. Where would you acquire a multiyear support contract for a 160k seat desktop environment? Red Hat they won’t. Canonical? Maybe, but you can probably rest assured it will have a bunch of subs. Sun might have been a viable alternative but with the Oracle purcahse it will probably be curtailed. So who ya gonna call? Hmmmm?

    Consider the following as part of the cost curve —

    * Re/training — massive black hole of cost. Your insurer is going to require you have certified staff. LPI and RHCE techs are still at a premium compared to MCSE’s. That’s just your IT team. There is also the cost of the entire end user community. Regardless of the hype, the application suites ARE different.

    * Conversion. If the firm uses a lot of macros who is going to convert them? And can they? And what is the cost? And are there show stoppers you did not consider in a critical applicaton?

    * Somebody please tell me an expeditious means to lock down the kernel? Or the modules? I can see in very short order IT support facing a technical drift in thier desktops without a means to lock it down at some level.

    * Staff. Can you hire enough Linux savy people? Personally I don’t see it as a problem. But business can sometime screw up a known win by doing it wrong. So it becomes a worry.

    Mr. Hannah, don’t get me wrong, I would love to see Unix/Linux conquer the desktop. I cut my tech teeth on ATT Unix Sys V years ago. I use Linux as my personal desktop and laptop. But there is more to consider and overcome than just a FREE OS.

  • The Linux community deciding to abandon promoting Linux as a server product essentially killed the OS as a Desktop Product, even as Ubuntu and the desktop was being pushed.

    Apple’s resurgence and the Mac/PC commercials knocked Linux out of the discussion. While Microsoft was updating it’s server product with offerings like SharePoint and a revamped AD and consolidated accounting software under the Dynamics label, the Linux community continued to exhibit Microsoft Derangement Syndrome and bicker over GUI or command line.

    Microsoft had record revenue during the Vista fiasco primarily on the back of the river of gold that is licensing, or as Redmond likes to call it "Annuity revenue".

    Linux isn’t used much in small to mid-size businesses servers that is targeted as Redmond’s sweet spot. That’s where Microsoft actually raked in profits as people spent gobs of money to support it’s product under the letters of MCSE.

    Sad. Pushing Linux as a Server Product in that market would have made huge inroads as we entered a protracted financial downturn with CFOs and Directors of Operation eagerly embracing the savings in seat licensing.

    Workers would have become exposed to the OS as a desktop mitigating the inability of consumers to have access to Linux pre-installed in the retail channel.

    Don’t put this on Microsoft. We committed suicide.

  • The line "And Corporate America has all necessary resources to effect the sea change where Linux Desktop replaces Windows." should read "And Corporate America has all necessary resources to affect the sea change where Linux Desktop replaces Windows."

    I’d like to see more corporate Linux desktops, too. I’d love to find a job installing, administering, and supporting them. How would you affect this "sea change"? Where do you start? The bean counters don’t know what the techies do, and not even all techies consider the Linux desktop a good choice. "Which distro? There are too many to choose from!", they often cry.

    The bean counters can go to any retail store and see Windows PCs prominently displayed. They almost never, if ever, see a Linux desktop. I would say that the sea change has to start with OEM offers. And that is a minefield, in and of itself, due to reasons you pointed out in your article.

    Last, and completely off the subject, I agree with your musical taste. The Beatles affected a generation, in one way or another.

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