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March 29, 2009
Red Hat’s CEO, Jim Whitehurst, spoke out strongly recently against the possibility of Linux ever taking over the desktop computers of the world. His comments may reflect Red Hat’s increasing distance from reality, but I don’t think they’re grounded in facts. Here’s why.
Whitehurst argued that mainsteam desktop Linux remains a pipe dream for several reasons. First, he claimed, there’s no money to be made on it, leaving companies little incentive to invest in it.
I disagree. Red Hat may have failed in its various attempts in years past to profit from desktop Linux, but that doesn’t mean other organizations can’t succeed. IBM, for instance, is selling Ubuntu desktop deployments to large enterprise clients. We’ve yet to see the results of that venture, but it’s clear that IBM thinks there’s some hard money to be made delivering Ubuntu on corporate desktops.
Whitehurst also cited interoperability problems as a show-stopping obstacle to widespread adoption of desktop Linux. He argued that Linux’s imperfect integration with Microsoft Exchange mail servers, for example, makes the free operating system impractical for many organizations.
True, a lack of compatibility with proprietary applications is still a problem for some Linux users, although the situation has improved greatly in the last several years. But interoperability is only an obstacle if the customer chooses to make it so: there are alternatives to Exchange, and most other proprietary services, that work well with Linux. If users are flexible enough to explore desktop Linux, they should also be receptive to open-source replacements for their services.
The final point in Whitehurst’s assault on the viability of desktop Linux was the declining relevance of desktop computers themselves in the era of “cloud computing” (which, of course, no one bothered to define with any precision). This has been a popular line of argument in recent years, but I don’t buy it.
Cloud computing may indeed make desktop-based applications largely irrelevant, but that doesn’t mean the desktops themselves will disappear. The clients accessing software in the cloud still need to be running something, and there’s no reason it can’t be Linux.
Indeed, if anything, cloud computing should encourage adoption of desktop Linux. As the focus shifts from local machines to software hosted in the cloud, users will become increasingly wary of shelling out hundreds of dollars for an operating system just to access Internet-based services, many of which will be free.
In addition, since web-based applications are generally cross-platform, cloud computing resolves the problem of interoperability that Whitehurst cited as a major obstacle to Linux adoption. There’s no good reason to buy Windows or OS X for the sole purpose of accessing cloud-based software in Internet Explorer or Safari when Ubuntu and Firefox offer the same functionality for free.
I suspect that what Whitehurst really wanted to do was draw attention away from Linux distributions like Ubuntu, which has made its name on the desktop and is using that momentum to threaten Red Hat in the server market. Whitehurst hopes to convince investors and customers that Canonical is squandering its resources on the irrelevant desktop market, which will lead eventually to Ubuntu’s downfall.
The desktop may be irrelevant in Red Hat’s world, since the company decided years ago to abandon the desktop in order to chase the server market. But in the larger IT ecosystem, desktops are here to stay, despite the popularity of non-Linux-friendly services like Exchange or the supposed advent of cloud-computing. Red Hat would do well to keep this in mind, if it hopes to preserve its own relevancy.
Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.
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