Linux faithful see ray of light shining on client OS

Linux poised to really give Microsoft something to compete against

Linux, long the laggard to the Windows desktop, is pushing into emerging markets, onto mobile devices and other client form factors, and is poised to give Microsoft something to really compete against, according to attendees at the annual Linux Foundation Summit.

While the Linux desktop has yet to hit its stride, the operating system is showing up and lowering prices in everything from mobile phones, tablets, global positioning systems and even gas pumps.

The major strike is in ultra-low-cost PCs (ULCPC), an emerging market that Microsoft is finally recognizing.

This week, the company extended the life of Windows XP Home for three more years, a concession that Vista is too bloated for the minimal processing power of ULCPCs and other devices.

To Linux vendors it's a door cracked open and a ray of light for a client operating system that looks smart on a new generation of computing devices.

At this week's summit, manufacturers of low-cost laptops/desktops, service providers and even top-tier OEMs say they are molding their Linux client operating system efforts to the reality of a new computing landscape while still eyeing the Linux desktop's long-term enterprise potential.

Representatives from Dell, HP, Lenovo, Asus, Xandros, Zonbu, Via Technology and gOS gathered to discuss the opportunities and challenges of selling Linux client operating systems.Â

The idea is to focus consumers and end users on client computing devices that let them get to services and applications they know, or need, without selling them on the underlying operating system.

"There is a huge market of people who can start out with Linux [and you don't have to try] to get them to switch from Windows," says John Hull, manager of the Linux engineering team at Dell. "And a lot of the opportunity is going to be in developing markets."

Dell said this week that its sales in the Middle East and China have jumped between 54% and 70% over the last year. The company predicts that by 2011 nearly 50 per cent of computers will be sold to emerging markets.

Microsoft has been offering low-cost "starter" versions of its operating system in emerging markets for four years, but with spotty results.

"Linux on the PC is more for target areas; it is not a true desktop replacement," says Jim Mann, technology strategist at HP. "If you don't have a broad base of apps and support for things such as wireless you are going to have a hard time replacing a Windows ecosystem, so new devices and form factors are the key growth areas."

Bruce Guptill, managing director of research firm Saugatuck Technology, says manufacturers, including major ones such as HP and Dell, are seeing the opportunity in low-cost, Linux-based devices that do everything the average user needs for between US$200 and $500. It's a market Microsoft does not dominate.

In fact, Guptill says the market trend caught Microsoft unaware during its five-year development of Vista.

"The long-standing user computing model of ever-increasing power and speed at the desktop [or laptop] may be fading in favor of lower-cost machines with 'good enough' capabilities," he says. Guptill says that fading interest is linked to inexpensive bandwidth; the growth of services cloud computing; and cloud-based processing, storage, management and associated IT services.

The new devices and form factors could be Linux-based ULCPCs, mobile phones with Internet access or other devices that deliver to users Web-based applications and services.

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Internet services and social networking tools, such as Google Apps or Facebook, give users consistent interfaces and navigation regardless of how they are accessed.

The Web 2.0 generation of Internet and corporate end users are willing participants in that model, and often prefer applications that do not live on their desktops.

"One thing we found with OpenOffice and Thunderbird was that a lot of consumers were not comfortable with them," says David Lui, founder of the gOS project, a Linux operating system that powers the gPC computers. The gPC relies on online applications. "By using Google and other services we found a lot more positive feedback," Lui says.

Companies like Zonbu are offering the entire client as a service.

"We are trying to set the system as a service," says Gregoire Gentil, CEO of Zonbu. "[It is] a fully [remote] managed computer with full backup, synchronization with the cloud, and ready to run."

Paul Kim, director of marketing for Everex, says one reason he is optimistic about open source products is that they get returned 15 to 20 percent less often than Vista-based machines. XP-based machines, however, come back less than both, he notes.

Despite the challenges, some feel Linux machines are poised to take off like never before.

Timothy Chen, director of business development and strategic partnerships for Via Technologies, which manufactures chipsets and integrated circuits, told Linux Foundation Summit attendees that he has a bet with a friend that if Linux desktops do not have 10 percent market share in the next five years he will run naked through the streets of Munich, Germany.

Chen also announced that Via would begin an open source initiative aimed at exposing its drivers to open source developers.

Saugatuck's Guptill says he sees accelerating awareness and acceptance of open source software development among device manufacturers beyond PCs and servers. In addition, he notices the same trend among IT departments outside the data center.