Future of Linux on the Desktop

Linux has been around for a long time now but has made few inroads into the desktop computing market. Linux is a mature and stable platform for desktop use. Many people regularly use Linux and have done so for a long time now. People claiming Linux is not mature for desktop users are mostly the kind who have never used Linux.

Contrary to conventional wisdom most computer users do not care about fancy desktop environments. The typical computer user cares about software applications s/he is familiar with and the routine tasks s/he performs using these applications.

A graphics artist accustomed to PhotoShop is not a candidate to migrate to Linux. Neither is a person who uses Microsoft Excel. Worse, people who are dependent on a plain vanilla Windows setup for web-browsing and email are not candidates for Linux either. Most computer users acquire computer skills over a period of years with a lot of effort and time expense. The cost of software is immaterial as compared to the cost of relearning computer skills and the associated productivity losses. Windows users when confronted with these migration costs prefer to keep on paying for Windows.

The cost of migrating to unfamiliar software is not exclusive to non-techies. Even tech-savvy individuals find unfamiliar software difficult to use. Long time Vi users do not find Emacs comfortable, and the converse is true as well. All software is complex and the cost of learning to use it almost always exceeds the cost of acquiring it. Once a person has learned to use a particular piece of software s/he has implicitly invested in that software. Ultimately, this investment stops him/her from migrating to a different software application.

Consumers typically do not explicitly put a price tag on the time invested in learning new software but businesses do. If an employee costs a company $50,000, just one week spent by that employee on getting familiar with Linux equals $961. Businesses are concerned about training and technical support costs as well. In countries where salaries are high there is a big gap between the cost of Windows and the migration cost to Linux. Microsoft understands this very well and is raising licensing fees to benefit from this gap.

Linux is not likely to gain significant market share of the desktop market in a mature PC market (market with widespread PC usage) any time soon. Linux can only achieve slow acceptance in such markets. Linux advocates can help by shifting their focus away for Windows users to individuals who have not used computers before. These individuals are easy recruits as they have not invested in any particular software yet.

The PC markets where Linux can really make a big difference are the developing countries. Individuals in developing countries are extremely price sensitive and often not computer literate. The costs of migration to Linux are non-existent in these countries. The experience of Thailand illustrates this perfectly. According to Linux Insider, first time PC users are finding Linux easier to use than Windows. The largest PC Manufacturer in Thailand, Laser computer, is even preinstalling Linux on all its computers. Contrast this with the experience of Dell in the US market. Dell offered Linux on consumer PCs for a while but bailed out because of lack of demand.

Linux will have a few easy victories in the developing countries before Microsoft wakes up. Microsoft understands that customers once lost to Linux are permanently lost. The migration costs keep them away from Windows. However, Microsoft has been somewhat misguided in its attempts to combat Linux. Until now, Microsoft has depended on widespread piracy in the developing countries to advance Windows. The company also believes that innovation on the desktop will keep Linux away.

Innovation is an irrelevant concept to a new computer user. The concept becomes important only when a user has grasped the use of a PC. The most important factor to a new computer user is price and after it the learning curve of the software. Piracy addresses the price of software but compounds the learning curve as pirated software typically comes without documentation.

To combat Linux in Thailand, Microsoft has lowered the price of Windows and Office for Thai consumers to $37. This is only a preview of things to come. Microsoft will increasingly focus on region specific customizations and user-friendly documentation for its software in all developing markets. Furthermore, Microsoft will lower the price of Windows and Office. Microsoft wants to dominate the developing PC markets to ensure its control. Once PCs achieve large-scale market penetration in these markets, Microsoft will be able to charge for its software. This will be possible as migration costs to Windows alternatives will have ballooned by that time.

Microsoft needs a simple and sound strategy that successfully marginalizes Linux permanently and assures Microsoft a good return on investment. The above strategy looks workable but in practice will turn out to be extremely complex, error prone and expensive. Governments will inevitably interfere with Microsoft's plans, and understanding regional and cultural preferences will turn out to be a tough task. Many markets will not mature for a very long time, requiring long-term commitments with no returns.

Linux will give Microsoft tough competition in developing markets. Local competitors will have a better understanding of the local market and will be able to customize Linux to target the market better. Linux will also benefit from trial and error as more than one company will customize it for the local market.

The end result will be a partitioning of developing markets between Linux and Windows. Microsoft will have some markets and Linux will have some. To Microsoft the returns will be very uncertain as Linux will continue to be a threat everywhere. Linux on the other hand will gain market share and this is all Linux proponents care about.

by Usman Latif  [Jan 03, 2004]

Related Links:

OSNews discussion for 'Future of Linux on the Desktop'
Microsoft Loses to Linux in Thailand Struggle
Dell Dumps Linux
Profits from Piracy