CEBIT - Will Novell's desktop Linux catch on?

Novell launched the next generation of its enterprise Linux desktop at Cebit, an OS it says is good enough for enterprises to use to replace Windows for the average office worker. But even if Novell Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 (SLED) is as impressive as Novell says it is, the big question is whether enterprises will embrace a widespread migration from Windows.

Current conditions suggest that answer is "no." While Linux desktop adoption in the enterprise is growing faster percentage-wise than Windows adoption, the number of Linux desktops at that level remains incredibly small compared to Windows deployments and is expected to stay that way for some time, said Al Gillen, research director for systems software at IDC.

"The desktop market is a very mature market, and Microsoft has a very strong presence there, which makes it hard for customers to move off," he said.

However, Jeff Jaffe, executive vice president and chief technology officer at Novell, said at the SLED 10 launch Thursday he is fairly confident that if enterprises have a chance to kick the tires of the new desktop OS, mass migration from Windows is soon to follow.

"Pilots [of SLED 10] are important for this year," he said. "You're not going to necessarily change out everything all at once. But with a few pilots, at that point [migration from Windows to SLED 10] will become viral."

Novell plans to release SLED 10 by late September, Jaffe said.

To industry watchers who have seen Windows' market share in the enterprise remain unwavering despite threats of a Linux desktop revolution, that may seem a pipe dream. But some Cebit attendees think that if certain market forces align, the enterprise could be poised to give desktop Linux a serious look as an alternative to Windows.

One factor that could drive that move is the perception that Microsoft locks users into long-term contracts so they have no choice but to continue using the OS, said Robert Henke, director of the infrastructure group for European pharmaceutical wholesaler GEHE Informatik Services GmbH & Co. KG.

"Microsoft has changed their license agreements so it's very costly, and then you get the feeling you are tied up and you can't move away from Windows because you have no choice," he said.

Henke's company considered moving its call-center workers, who use fixed desktops that can easily be standardized on Linux, to the last version of SLED, but didn't think the OS was strong enough to justify the expense.

SLED 10, with many of the same features as Windows or Apple Computer's Mac OS X, is another story. "A pilot with this product looks quite good," Henke said. It's likely his company will do a trial deployment of SLED 10 for call-center workers by the end of the year, and move the employees to SLED 10 if that works out well, he said.

"If you can dip your toe into the cold water and see if it is really cold or not by starting Linux in one corner [of the enterprise], then you get a better feeling [about migrating]," Henke said. "We did it on the server with Suse Linux products before they were bought by Novell; now we have a lot of Linux-based servers that once were Windows-based. The next step for us is to start with the standardized Linux desktop."

Hardware vendor adoption of SLED 10 also will be an important factor for enterprise adoption, said Thomas Uhl, managing director of Millenux GmbH, a Linux consulting firm in Germany.

Uhl said he spoke with hardware vendors who attended Novell's press conference Thursday at Cebit, and based on what he heard, they seem willing to ship PCs and notebooks with SLED 10 alongside traditional Windows machines.

Uhl has a couple of reasons for his confidence that hardware vendors will come on board. They like to provide their customers with choice because it is likely they will sell more computers that way, he said. And Microsoft earns a substantial profit from the sales of Windows PCs and can keep OEM (original equipment manufacturer) licensing prices fairly high because there is no rival in that market, he said. Hardware vendors would welcome the chance to earn more money by partnering with a major Linux desktop provider like Novell, he said.

"If you look at the bill of material how much money goes to Redmond, how much goes to Intel, how much money goes to the hardware partners, the OEMs would be happy to get more," Uhl said.

Of course, Microsoft dominance in the desktop OS market also poses a major roadblock to hardware adoption, he added. It would be easy for Microsoft to exert pricing pressure on its top hardware OEM partners if those companies decide to ship a major Linux competitor, Uhl said.

"Microsoft can go to someone and say, 'If you are pushing this too much I can raise my OEM Windows cost,' and then you have a problem in the market," Uhl said. "It's an easy game for them."

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