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

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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?