How long is it since you read a ‘Year of the Linux Desktop’ article? Having been a regular feature since around the year 2000 they seem to have tailed off. The promise of a free and stable alternative to Windows was often cited but never really seemed to take off. So what happened? Is open source on the desktop doomed to be a non-starter, or was it just an idea ahead of its time? The launch of Windows 8 is an ideal opportunity to revisit those questions and consider if that time has finally come.
The reasons why operating system choice is becoming more relevant are most apparent for mobile workers. The emergence of cloud computing, smartphones and tablets have ensured that applications are being written for the web with users starting to see beyond the world of Windows and the traditional desktop PC. That many of these devices are running on a Linux system is in itself an interesting shift.
The browser and access to ‘apps’ is what really matters now, which is why the so-called browser wars are more important to Google and Microsoft than they ever were. Google have taken the distinction between operating system and browser furthest with their release of Chromium OS and Chromebooks. They may be based on a Linux kernel, but as far as the user is concerned the browser is the system. Apps are installed to the browser, printing is controlled from the browser and files are accessed from the browser. Even offline applications are accessed by the browser thanks to HTML5.
Windows 8 is Microsoft’s acknowledgement of these changes, designed as it is to work on non desktop devices and connect to cloud services. This is probably exactly what Microsoft need to do given the circumstances, but their move to a post PC world is also an acknowledgment that they can’t dominate the operating system market in the same way they once did.
This trend has already started. Netbooks are being sold with Android installed, Chromebooks are being heavily pushed by Google and the similarities between iOS and MacOS are clear to see. These are all systems with Unix type distributions at their core. We may not be quite ready to celebrate the year of the Linux desktop, but it’s probably safe to say that we’re already there in terms of its use everywhere else.
Using Linux based systems on a device is one thing, but can it really substitute a managed desktop operating system like Windows? What about authentication, file storage, centralised updates and security? Moreover, what about the legacy windows applications most notably MS Office that we’ve come to know and love?
MacOS has been a great example of how these issues can be overcome. With the right backing it has been shown to be perfectly possible to provide a Unix type desktop system that works for users and can be successfully integrated into the enterprise.
Enterprise requirements like print queues, file storage and centralised management are all areas that Unix type systems shines anyway, but the move to web based provision of these services is making the question even less relevant. For some, having desktops that behave more like devices means much less effort on all these fronts.
For the core office productivity applications, Microsoft and Google are already locked in battle to provide them from the cloud to enable remote working. Microsoft are offering richer functionality for users of Windows and Office, but nobody denies that these applications will become increasingly cloud based.
There has always been a strong cost benefit for Open Source, but the need to run applications on the platform for which they were mostly developed, usually Windows, always won the day. Now that applications are developed for the web rather than Windows the argument for continuing to pay for a Windows license is not so strong. It may be called ‘Android’ or ‘Chromium’ rather than Linux but the key difference will be the cost compared to Windows 8. Governments are keen to keep costs down too and are also looking at open source as a quick win.
In a recent BCS discussion on LinkedIn members were asked their thoughts on using Ubuntu instead of Windows. Ubuntu and Red Hat are often touted as the most feasible enterprise alternative to Windows because of their large backers, but Ubuntu is where much of the attention is now focused. They provide a very easy to deploy system and offer commercial support, cloud storage and centralised deployment options.
It was clear that a number of members have used Ubuntu and variants for their personal and family computers but there was less evidence of its use (other than for servers) in the work environment. A growing relevance to government was cited but at this stage there isn’t too much evidence of it actually happening.
For many the idea of alternatives to Windows on the desktop remains as far away as it ever was. For all the rapid adoption of consumer devices and cloud services, the applications used in most companies remain firmly tied to Windows. MS Office remains a favourite with users and has no Linux edition. Even for the users who are moving to Office 365 Microsoft have cleverly engineered a dependence on windows based software for full functionality. Accounting software, HR packages and custom databases are also genuine reasons why a move to Linux would not make sense.
One thing is certain. If 2013 is the year, it won’t be for the reasons we thought back in 2000. It won’t be because Linux has suddenly become more ‘ready’. It won’t be because Windows has got any worse. It won’t necessarily be about money and it won’t be about security. It will be for the simple reason that the operating system is becoming increasingly irrelevant and unnoticed by users who are spending increasing amounts of their time on platform agnostic web apps.
[A version of this article has been published on the BCS website]