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Storytelling In The News: #158

The story of Linux: can it take over the desktop?

May 23, 2004

Can a bunch of individuals who are scattered around the world and do what no conventional company has been able to do -- build an operating system that can take on and beat the largest software corporation in the world? Fifteen years ago the possibility would have been unthinkable. Now it has actually happened with the advent of Linux, the open-source operating system, which is now the principal competitor of Microsoft for server software.

Now Linux is ready to do battle on a new front -- to take over the desktop. Having won broad acceptance for use in the corporate back office, open-source software is looking to challenge Microsoft Corp.'s dominance of the desktop PC. The timing -- and the technology -- are right for an assault to begin, proponents say.

The story of a user

The Wall Street Journal considers the question of whether the challengers have a prayer by looking at the story of a typical user -- William Schmitz.

William Schmitz, business manager of the Wichita, Kan., YMCA. became a fan of the open-source operating system called Linux last winter when he bought a $360 home PC at a Sam's Club warehouse store.

Linux, like other open-source software, is developed by programmers around the world who freely share the changes and improvements they make in it. It can be downloaded free from the Web, but many companies sell it packaged with hardware, auxiliary software and services.

The cheapie computer Mr. Schmitz bought came with a Linux operating system and open-source applications software that gives him e-mail, presentation and spreadsheet capabilities that he says are comparable to those on a PC costing twice as much equipped with Microsoft Office software.

Mr. Schmitz figures that if he could introduce Linux to the office, the organization could save a bundle. But he's stuck: The Wichita YMCA relies on a back-office accounting and membership software program that is compatible with Microsoft's Windows operating system but not with Linux.

What the story means

Such incompatibility is probably the biggest obstacle in open-source systems' pursuit of the desktop. Programmers have improved the ability of open-source software to share information with computers using the dominant Windows system and Microsoft's Office suite of applications. But there are still too many incompatibilities with the Microsoft world for many companies to feel comfortable about making the leap -- especially big corporations that have been Microsoft customers for years.

But that hardly means the battle is over. In fact, Linux's supporters would argue it's just beginning. Price, they say, will continue to push companies into using open-source software. In addition, some big names among computer and software sellers have decided to take on Microsoft with open-source products.

What's more, proponents say, constant upgrading has brought open-source software to the point where it closely resembles the look of comparable Microsoft programs, making a switch less stressful for users.

At the same time, open-source software generally requires less computing power, a factor that its proponents suggest could be especially important because a new version of Windows slated for release in 2006 will be beyond the capacity of many older computers. And, its supporters contend, Linux systems are less vulnerable to attack by computer viruses and worms.

Al Gillen, who tracks operating systems for market researcher International Data Corp., predicts Linux will have 6% of the global desktop market by 2007, more than doubling its 2.7% share of the market in 2002, the most recent figures available. Most of that growth is expected to come at the expense of Microsoft, which held 92% of the desktop market in 2002.

For both Microsoft and consumers, the impact of the desktop battle could be enormous. Widespread open-source software on the desktop would give millions of consumers and business users a low-priced alternative to Microsoft's ubiquitous Windows and Office software products. It would threaten Microsoft's biggest revenue and profit engines. By disrupting the Microsoft standard, it would also raise issues of complexity, compatibility and cost for software developers, corporate computer managers and many users.

IBM is in the midst of a study to see if its own employees can be switched to Linux desktops. Scott Handy, vice president, Linux strategy, says about 15,000 of the Armonk, N.Y.-based company's 320,000 employees already have Linux desktops, although he says many of them use Windows as well. IBM thinks users like its scientific researchers and software developers do most of their word processing in e-mail, so they wouldn't be inconvenienced by switching to an Open Office suite that isn't compatible with Microsoft Word.

Skeptics say that in addition to compatibility issues, switching to open-source software can create confusion among users long accustomed to Microsoft programs. But some Linux backers say the difficulty of conversion from Windows is exaggerated. Debra Andersen, chief information officer at Novell, who had never used Linux before Novell bought Ximian last summer, says she expects to move 90% of the 6,000 employees at Novell off Microsoft Office by the end of July. "We're seeing the learning curve is much less steep than we had anticipated," she says.

Bottom line

The story of Linux is an amazing success story with servers. It's become the little engine that could.

Can Linux pull off a similar triumph with desktops? The technical and economic factors will play a role, along with the more central issue -- how many people will believe the Linux story.

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