The Linux Desktop: Boom Or Bust?

Linux operating systems

For three consecutive months, data that CRN has collected from readers selling open source and Linux solutions has shown consistent expectations of large sales increases in the immediate future, while follow-up data reveals sales, on average, falling far short of expectations.

But sales have been slow for Vista, too, even by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's own admission. That and yesterday's announcement that investment firm Goldman Sachs removed Microsoft from its elite list of "Americas Conviction Buy" stocks largely because of its belief that "Vista may be the last big operating system developed by the company" certainly help to raise expectations that end users will seek alternatives.

And evidence does exist that end users are at least curious or more open to open source.

"Since Vista hit the scene, we have been quoting more services utilizing open-source technologies than ever before at the request of clients" says Steven Pfohl Murphy, president of Buffalo IT Solutions in Buffalo, N.Y.

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The company has been offering Linux solutions for the past five-plus years in commercial settings. Such inquiries may be at the heart of what's driving increased expectations for sales among solution providers. But, overall, customers are mostly looking and not buying.

CRN's monthly index of sales expectations for February through April has been 24.2, 12.5 and 29.2, respectively. The February and April values were higher than for any other market CRN tracks. Positive index values indicate expectation of an acceleration of sales in the next 30 days. Index values of 100 indicate an expected dollar volume increase of 50 percent compared to the previous month.

In contrast to the sales expectations for February and March, realized sales of alternative and open-source software were highly disappointing on average. The sales indexes for alternative and open-source software in February and March were -2.3 and -1.3, respectively, indicating essentially no change in sales levels from each of the previous months. April sales data will be collected at the end of the month. The January index was 4.8 points, showing a slight bump in January that may have been related to implementation of new budgets.

Certain types of servers, particularly Web servers, and engineering or scientific workstations have been a good market for Linux for some time, but Linux on the desktop, which is what would cut into Microsoft's Vista market, might not be quite ripe. However, according to Pfohl Murphy, it's not because such systems aren't viable. He said he has clients conscious of the cost and reliability benefits of going Linux on the desktop that provide e-mail and productivity suites to their administrative workers on open-source systems. In some cases, his clients use CrossOver to ensure they can collaborate with Microsoft Office-using companies inside their OpenOffice documents.

Even this precaution, which requires purchase of Microsoft Office licenses, might not be necessary forever, Pfohl Murphy said, because of the viral marketing power of distributing documents created with OpenOffice. He said companies receiving such documents often ask questions about this open-source productivity suite. As a side note, use of productivity suites delivered as an online service isn't picking up any real momentum yet, he said .

Pfohl Murphy agrees that sales levels of these Linux desktop systems aren't as high as the level of inquiry, but he sees sales slowly and steadily increasing.

So, according to CRN's survey numbers, solution providers may be expecting a Linux desktop sales boom commensurate with the boom in recent customer awareness. Perhaps what they should expect instead is a slow ramp up for now.