Desktop Linux: Should It Chase Microsoft or Apple, Find Its Own Way, or Just Give Up?

Rob Enderle

This kind of question is often a problem with a technology challenging a dominant vendor that doesn't have any desire to go quietly into the night. The easy path is to simply duplicate what works and try to do it better. Being a better Microsoft, given decades of infrastructure, partnership, VAR, and application development is simply not a reasonable goal, even for a company like IBM (which tried this almost two decades ago).


Apple goes its own way, but isn't really pushing the envelope on the desktop either. Yes, it uses ECT rather than BIOS, but its PCs are nowhere near as advanced, compared to competing offerings, like the iPod was at launch or the iPhone is today. And, while the iPhone is still a long way from dominance (and may never get there), the iPod's dominance is clearly defined in its segment.


Lora Bentley argues compellingly that SuSE Linux is likely a better choice for the corporate desktop (Dell's offering is targeted at Linux enthusiasts right now) and I agree with her that, particularly for Lenovo, this is the right choice for a company. However, Red Hat is financially stronger (and thus less risky) and I think most of us, if given a choice, would pick Ubuntu for our own desktop. Then we are back to the problem of too many choices in a market where the buyer wants one clear alternative (because they don't want to find themselves on the wrong platform).


All of this still feels too much like Windows-light to me: long on rhetoric but short on fundamental advantages that real people (non-geeks) can wrap their arms around.


An Opportunity to Think Different


I was visiting one of the large OEMs last week and one of the things they said stuck with me. The comment was that they are amazed at how much passion and technology exists in Microsoft for the desktop that never gets out of the company. They complained about the lack of marketing on Vista, and wondered if Microsoft was simply treating Windows as a cash cow. This belief was significantly fueling their Linux efforts because they didn't want Microsoft to turn their PC business into a declining one.


A challenger, at least at first, doesn't have the entrenched vendor's problem of backwards compatibility. And if a major issue with the entrenched vendor is that it isn't moving fast enough (we can use the examples of both the iPhone and iPod, which launched into relatively stable though not particularly fast-moving competitive environments), then the right path is to offer something vastly closer to what the market wants but isn't getting. And that isn't cheaper, which is a death spiral. It's better, like the iPhone is better.


Strangely enough, examples of that exist with Microsoft Surface, HP Touchsmart, Zonbu, MojoPac and the iPhone itself (which many seem to think represents the best path to replacing the laptop with something more useful and portable). You'll note that the majority of these are based on Windows and the one that is likely the most obscure is based on Linux.


Also, what made the iPod and iPhone successful was not only a solid focus on losing complexity (even though the iPhone is based on UNIX, it conceals very well anything that looks to a user like UNIX) and on marketing (which means someone has to have a big launch budget and Linux doesn't throw off much cash for such a thing).


Why Apple and Linux Likely Will Never Be Dominant on the Desktop: Google


Apple gets usability and marketing but doesn't get licensing and partnering as a way to gain critical mass. Linux is widely shared but lacks standardization and marketing, and ease of use has clearly not been a strength, making something like the iPhone nearly impossible to create and market.


While it is fun to speculate about both, I just don't see the hard decisions being made by either to actually create the kind of event it would truly take to displace Windows. However, Google is another thing altogether. It gets there not by chasing Microsoft but by trivializing it and, in the process, doing the same to Apple and Linux.


What makes Google different is it plans to increasingly connect the user to the Web, turning that into the battlefield. In effect, in a future Google world, the OS doesn't matter because all it does is carry the browser, enhanced by Google to pass the ad revenue back to, you guessed it, Google. All of the value comes from Google services and in that future Google world, no one, and I really mean no one, but Google matters.


Google isn't the only company on this strategic path either. Cisco is as well, and both are likely to go after the consumer first, though both clearly have corporate aspirations. If you look at one of the Cisco VoIP enterprise phones, the capability and processing power is starting to drift into the PC space. VoIP in many ways drives to that direction and for those that recall the 80s, this isn't the first time.


Wrapping Up


In competition it often is about choices. I still say Microsoft is at its most vulnerable on the desktop right now, but I don't see real competition actually coming from Linux or Apple directly but from Google and perhaps Cisco, both of whom may use Linux, but will likely trivialize it while doing so.


I wonder if the time is approaching when a desktop OS, be it OS X, Windows or Linux simply isn't that important. Do you really care what OS your phone runs? How about your set-top box, router or navigation system? The whole PC/separate OS thing is kind of an anomaly anyway; I still think the OS and hardware should be tied together at the hip (old OSs on new hardware and new OSs on old hardware, given the current cost of most hardware, seems really stupid to me).


I think the iPhone, and some of the new set-top products (Xbox 360, next-generation Cisco, Zonbu) are changing how we look at hardware. All it takes is one done like iPhone is (do you really care that it runs UNIX?) and we are blasting into a new world where the experience is everything and the technology is hidden. Anyone want to bet who gets there first?

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Aug 9, 2007 10:12 AM lefty.crupps lefty.crupps  says:
While I agree that the Web (or another Internet technology perhaps) will be a huge battlefield, there still will be a need for desktop applications (privacy is one reason) and a platform to run the web browser. If all that is needed for 90% of a daily workload is the browser, who *wouldn't* choose the Free, secure GNU/Linux OS? Why would someone pay hundreds of dollars for a web browser, if that is the only needed application?I don't think that the browser will be the only app at all, but Free software on the GNU/Linux platform is growing and improving at an incredible rate; any software company who isn't working on a port of their software to the Linux platform already is behind!If Free software can complete 99%* of my 'power user' needs, all with a GUI, what is there to incent me to purchasing a buggy OS from Microsoft, or a dumbed-down OS from Apple, or even a closed-source app from a company who doesn't respect my Freedoms (www.gnu.org) ?The customer is getting back in control of the products that they own, after 20+ years of loosing this control. Freedom is on the march, and Linux will lead the charge on the desktop.*(that other 1% is the closed-source nvidia graphics drivers, but just for now...) Reply
Aug 9, 2007 11:43 AM Cosmix Cosmix  says:
>I think you're selling Microsoft short. They have already been able to largely neutralize GPL2 and are currently working to have their proprietary, partially secret, file formats for office apps become "open standards". It is obvious that they are working on several fronts with the intent of neutralizing the open software movement. In the long run they won't care weather you buy their software directly, or pay them a license fee for using formerly free software. Reply
Aug 16, 2007 1:52 PM The Management Consultant The Management Consultant  says:
The opinion most aired in the business community is that Microsoft was taken somewhat by surprise at the apparent growth of interest in the Open Source market by its potential customers. It also sees a potential threat to its current market position by new entrance in the OS market place. There is much written about MS entry strategy into Open Source market and its apparent interest in building a Open Source competency as a potential growth market. It is likely that MS will produce a pure or hybrid product . In time consolidation will happen among the Linux distributions as market dynamics change. At this point in new opportunities will be presented to configure hardware/software product solutions similar to Mac. My guess is Dell continues to evaluated such opportunities.... Reply
Dec 31, 2007 8:23 PM elder norm elder norm  says:
Hmmm, you said "I wonder if the time is approaching when a desktop OS, be it OS X, Windows or Linux simply isnt that important. Do you really care what OS your phone runs? How about your set-top box, router or navigation system? "I think it makes a lot of difference when its difficult to use. As the smart phone market is showing us, the iPhone is selling very well and the standard comment is that people can finally use the functions that are on it. While you may spend all day playing with technology, the average person has a life and a job and needs their technology to "just work". I think you will see Apple continue to climb in the marketplace as people realize this and get more and more dissatisfied with Microsoft. While the Office products will still sell -- for a while -- I think you will see Microsoft slowly sinking into the quagmire of oblivian. (sorry for the spelling, its monday and the browser does not have a spell checker (that I can make work :-( ) )Elder Norm Reply

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