Has Desktop Linux Missed its Opportunity?

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Mac OS X is desktop Linux's real competition for user attention

Illustration: Hal Mayforth
Linux isn't the only alternative OS to Windows vying for a spot on the enterprise desktop. Apple has made slow but steady inroads in recent years, with some studies suggesting it now commands an unprecedented 10 percent share of the total OS market, and 23 percent of businesses have at least some Macs in use. Virtually all of those gains have come at Microsoft's expense. So why is Mac OS X enjoying such success while desktop Linux has seemingly stagnated?

Apple is known for its savvy marketing, but its campaigns seldom target the enterprise. Its core customer base consists of students, educators, creative professionals, and individual consumers, whom it courts with a brand message that's equal parts Porsche and Picasso. Far from being a business darling, Apple paints the Mac as the anti-corporate PC: You either "think different" or shop elsewhere.

Ironically, however, Apple's iconoclastic image may be precisely what has driven its recent gains in the workplace. Apple is one of the world's most successful brands. Its customers are notoriously loyal -- so much so that its following is often derisively described as a "cult." When businesses purchase Macs, it's often in response to pressure from employees who use Macs at home and would prefer the same at work.

The same won't happen for Linux. Linux has rabid fans, certainly, and it's definitely iconoclastic. But saying you're a fan of Apple is like saying you're a fan of U2; saying you're a fan of Linux is like saying you're a fan of rock 'n' roll.

That's because there's no such thing as a single "desktop Linux" -- and there's not likely to be a clear Linux leader. The design, layout, and UI of your Linux desktop will vary based on whether you use Fedora, Mandriva, Suse, Ubuntu, Xandros, or some other distribution. Some will be based on the Gnome desktop, while others will use KDE -- and even then, most distros add their own, unique customizations. Users who sit down at a random PC running Linux won't necessarily be able to say, "This is Linux, I know this." Even if they have used Linux before, the desktop may seem completely unfamiliar.

The lack of software for Linux that caters to the consumer market is a further barrier to mainstream adoption. The dearth of games for Linux may not be a business concern, but it means gamers won't want to use it at home. Neither will those who want to use their PCs to manage their home businesses; there's no professional tax preparation software for Linux. And multimedia support, a longtime Mac OS specialty, sometimes requires Linux users to jump through extra hoops, owing to intellectual property constraints. Until Linux can overcome such stumbling blocks, it will never garner the kind of user loyalty that Mac OS X enjoys.

Finally, don't underestimate the significance of the fact that Mac OS X, like Windows, ships pre-installed on laptops and desktop PCs. By comparison, the selection of consumer-level hardware that ships with Linux pre-installed remains small. Even Linux netbooks are increasingly difficult to find. Adding insult to injury, manufacturers often subsidize Windows PCs through third-party software bundles. As a result, prebuilt Linux systems may carry higher price tags than comparable Windows machines, despite shipping with a free OS.

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