Enterprise Desktops and Linux
Linux wears many different hats. Server, desktop, laptop, tablet, phone, embedded, if there is a device with a CPU there is a good bet that it can run linux. Regardless of Linux’s domination in the datacenter, and it’s mainstream acceptance in mobile and other areas, the fate of the Linux Desktop is what gets people worked up. When a highly public person like Miguel de Icaza switches his desktop to OS X, quite a bit of discussion ensues.
Much discussion, and most of it for naught. The personal computer that de Icaza uses is of little importance to the Linux community as a whole. He is making a switch during a transitionary period of personal computing, where we are moving from PCs to tablets and smart phones, and the new mobile computing platform is clearly the way of the future. The role of PCs will continue to decline, especially in the home use market. However, the enterprise will have a use for PCs for many, many years to come, and this is where the best opportunity for the Linux desktop resides.
Enterprise desktops are different from “personal computers”. They are, for the most part, special purpose machines, intended as tools to help the employee get a job done. The restrictions on what the machine can and can not do create an environment ripe for open source innovation. For example, they need not concern themselves with the ability to watch movies or play games, they don’t need to worry about supporting the most recent 3D desktop enhancements, or the latest apps. They only need to work, and work reliably.
The “work” portion of the previous sentence is no problem. Linux works great. Unfortunately, it is the “reliably” portion that still needs some work. In the past week of using Linux I had my “guaranteed” crash-free Xmonad desktop freeze up on my three times, each time requiring a reboot to get back to a responsive desktop. After the third time I wiped the laptop and returned to a base vanilla install of Ubuntu, which has also plagued me with “internal system errors”. It occurs to me that Ubuntu is probably not the right choice for a business Linux desktop, and that a more reasonable option is probably CentOS, or even a purchased Red Hat Enterprise Linux Desktop. While Canonical caters to enterprise users to a point, they are clearly aiming towards home users with the convergence initiative. This effort might turn out to be a mistake, as they will be competing head to head with both Apple and Microsoft. Aiming squarely at the enterprise narrows the playing field.
I should make a point to state that I understand that many people will disagree, and that Linux on the desktop is more important now than ever. I understand, but I’m a realist, and try to be pragmatic in my recommendations. The home computer market is saturated by Apple, Microsoft, and Google. The average home user simply does not care about or understand open source. But, a strong business case for open source on the enterprise desktop can be, and frequently is, made. A common joke I’ve heard is that Linux is free if your time is worth nothing, but the economics of the joke make less and less sense at the scale of a large company. A single sysadmin can handle quite a few clones.
I’m not recommending that the best and brightest Linux developers focus solely on the enterprise. Ok, well, I am, but I’m recommending that with the understanding that Linux, being what it is, and the open source community being what it is, will largely ignore such a recommendation. That’s open source, everyone has their own idea of what it is, and is perfectly free to make of it what they wish. I see an opportunity in the enterprise to push Linux just as Microsoft is flailing, and Apple has no interest in the market. It doesn’t matter what de Icaza uses as his personal computer, that’s the past. This is the future.