Apple, Laptops, and the outlook for Linux on the desktop

I should make a disclaimer here that I’m professing no real knowledge here. I’m speculating. And partly, I’m playing devil’s advocate.

Apple, so far as I can tell, is going pretty much nowhere in terms of server deployments. Oh, they make servers, it’s just that I don’t see them really going very far. However, with the continuing growth in the laptop market, and Apple’s success therein, I can’t help but wonder what all of this means for the Linux desktop market.

Oh sure, there’s always the *enterprise* desktop market… I guess. The Linux community has been saying, emphatically, for years that Linux is “ready”, for some definition of “ready”, and for certain use cases. Unfortunately, it hasn’t caught on. Why do you think that is?

Well, part of the reason might be inertia, and a general unwillingness to change in any direction regardless of platform. But its hubris not to consider that maybe Linux just isn’t ready. And probably a part of what makes it “not ready” in the eyes of a lot of enterprises is the lack of a cohesive Linux offering that can be installed on *all* of their desktops *and* laptops and whatever else and “just work”. In my opinion it’s the laptop, not the desktop PC hardware, that’s killing Linux on the desktop. Going forward, “desktop” and “laptop” will become *more* synonymous, not less.

We still have a long way to go in the Linux world to making Linux a corporate contender for any enterprise that has any kind of mobile workforce. Linux on laptops is still terrible compared to either OS X or even Windows (which is pretty bad itself). Laptop hardware compatibility with Linux is absolutely terrible. I work in an area where I see dozens of different laptop models. People around here are constantly buying the latest cool gadgets and laptops and trying to get Linux to run on them. 99% of the time there’s a decent bit of pain involved. In rare instances, there’s something that could be called real success, but these aren’t people who need, say, Cisco VPN compatibility, or Exchange calendar sharing, or hardcore 3D accelleration. Good thing they don’t. In most cases they are thrilled if their built-in wireless will work and they can actually start X. Most haven’t even tried putting their laptop to sleep under Linux, and I’ve *never* seen someone do it successfully on any laptop, ever.

The only place to point the finger for these issues is at the hardware vendors, but whatever – point the finger all you want – these vendors haven’t found a way to make money with Linux, and we’ve been waiting for them and pointing fingers at them for years. The only people who *care* who is at fault are the people who are already convinced of the merits of Linux and are already using it…. exactly the people that *don’t* matter. The people who *do* matter – the masses and corporate PHBs who make large purchasing decisions could care less whose fault it is. They’ll never get to that question. They’ll get right up to “it doesn’t work”, and that’s it. Game over. There’s no investigation beyond that. Game called on account of lack of interest. They don’t care. It doesn’t matter. Don’t go giving corporate decision makers all kinds of credit. They don’t have to wear a tie to work because they make mind-numbingly difficult technology decisions. They just made the decisions that haven’t yet gotten them fired. That’s how they got there.

In case you missed it, there’s some good news here. The good news is that, while Linux *is* plagued with usability issues, those issues are no more foreboding than they are on any other platform. The Linux interface, overall, is not scary anymore. Most of those who say it’s scary have never seen Linux, or haven’t seen it in years, and they can safely be ignored. You’d be shocked at what people think is *still* wrong with Linux. The masses still think you need to do everything from the command line and are shocked when they see a graphic displayed on a Linux desktop. :-/

Anyway, this good news offers little hope as the corporate workforce becomes more mobile, and shows no real signs of slowing down. Let’s face it, if they *wanted* a Linux solution to this, they’d’ve paid for one by now. Apparently, what they’re dealing with now is “good enough”, or at least it’s better than, say, going after the laptop makers, the video card makers, the VPN hardware makers, the soundcard makers, the wireless card makers…. If you had to choose your battles, you might consider this one unwinnable. I don’t think I’d blame you. There are other battles.

So, really, what we should be saying is “Linux is as ready as we can make it for whatever anyone wants to use it for. The rest is up to the hardware vendors.”

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Mark my words: success will come when corporations can look to Linux to be the go-to platform for laptops *and* desktops. These have to be a given. People in the enterprise are increasingly using *both* to get their work done, in addition to the occasional handheld device or tablet PC. Mobility will be the buzzword not only for 2007, but probably 2008 and ’09 as well. And Linux’s rocky history with laptops doesn’t leave me hopeful for the future of Linux on the desktop.

  • harda

    I mostly agree with your assestment, but I think you’ve left out one important problem: most users (enterprise or not) use the operating system installed on their “desktop” at the factory for the life of their hardware. (I don’t have a source for this fact, but I’ve never heard anyone say it isn’t true.) The lower costs of all kinds of computers encourages this behaviour; major operating system updates are far enough apart that older hardware is deprecated in the interm.

    My hope for the GNU/Linux desktop is singular: anyone who wants a GNU/Linux desktop, and can make their own purchasing decisons, can have a GNU/Linux desktop — just like anyone who wants a Macintosh desktop, and can make their own purchasing decisions, can have a Macintosh desktop. I think this means that all we have to do is convince more people (as individuals) to want GNU/Linux desktops and GNU/Linux will inch closer to desktop dominance.

    -Dave

  • haaseg

    Although Dave’s comments may be true for the consumer market, they are definitely NOT true for all large corporations. One large company that I worked for used to have an entire department dedicated to “the Core Image”. The had a highly customized Windows install with 100% of the vendor supplised cruft removed and 100% of the company supplied cruft added. The first thing to happen to any PC the compnay purchased was a complete wipe install of the core image. For this particular company, the image included all the Novell ZenWorks and Groupwise software, and no Outlook or Outlook Express to speak of.

    In these types of companies, where users are fairly well locked down to begin with, software compatibility becomes much less of an issue. If the company is thinking forward enough and not getting locked into Microsoft because of the version of some obscure app that they absolutely have to have, then migrating to Linux on the desktop for these companies is easier. It’s still not trivial… but it’s easier. They’d need to replace their department of Windows gurus with a department of Linux gurus. And for a large enterprise to be able to instantly staff up with 10 or 11 experienced Linux desktop engineers – well that might be your sticking point right there.

  • http://m0j0.wordpress.com/ m0j0

    I agree with haaseg, here. I’ve worked/consulted in a lot of very large firms, and the notion of a user having any input whatsoever as to what winds up on their desktop is laughable in those environments. What generally happens is you show up to work, you sit and do nothing for about 3 days while your PC is set up, then like 3 goons from the Change Management department swoop in one day, and bam. You have a desktop machine.

    They don’t hand out a questionairre asking about your political stance with regards to operating system, or what color wallpaper you’d like. They give you the ‘standard issue’ Windows image, with the things you need (based probably on your job code and generated by computer) preinstalled, and there you are.

    If there’s ever a problem with your machine, you can pretty much count on it being completely wiped, because they’re just going to install the same image on it again, and you’re not supposed to be saving anything to the *local* hard drive anyway.

    If this sounds draconian, it kind of is, but that’s how it works. Note, though, that NO smaller companies I worked at work like this. In those places, you likely know more than the support person, so you just tell them you’ll support yourself and never bother them, and they’ll just hand you the hardware and give you the info for stuff like the imap server and any required proxy information (you smile politely when they give you the proxy information).

    :-)