It's free, easier to use than ever, IT staffers know it and love it, and it has fewer viruses and Trojans than Windows.
It's already ubiquitous on the server side. Plus, there are now alternatives to the most popular software packages out there--again, for free--and new software releases often have Web-based interfaces, making operating systems irrelevant.
So, why hasn't Linux on the desktop taken off?
Especially since Linux--in the form of the Android operating system--dominates the mobile market, with a 50.9% market share at the end of 2011, according to Gartner numbers released in February, up from 30.5% market share at the end of 2010.
On the server side, Linux is also doing well, especially with high performance computing and cloud infrastructure deployments, according to IDC, with Linux servers now accounting for more than 18% of all server revenues.
But on the desktop, Linux's numbers barely register. Gartner predicts that Linux penetration on the desktop will remain below 2% for the next five years.
So, what's the problem? It's not just corporate inertia--companies are quick to move when there's money to be saved. But when it comes to desktop Linux, the cost savings turn out to be problematic, there are management issues, and compatibility remains an issue.
Let's get the money question out of the way first. Yes, Linux is free, and so is the open source-software that often comes with it -- OpenOffice, the GIMP photo editing software, the Thunderbird email client.
But, as the old saying goes, it's "free as in puppy, not free as in beer."
First, Windows itself isn't that expensive when you get it bundled in with new desktops and laptops. The cost savings to run Linux on the same hardware is minor.
For example, the Dell Latitude 2120 with Windows 7 Home Premium is $494, while a similarly-loaded Ubuntu Latitude 2120 is $434 -- a savings of just $50.
In addition, the free versions of Linux are only supported with free fixes for about a year, says Michael Silver, an analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner group.
"You have to switch to the new version of Linux every year," he says. "Microsoft supports each version of Windows for ten years--I don't have to pay any more money, and I still get security fixes. Even vendors that do offer extended security fixes for Linux, like Novell or Red Hat, they're going to charge every year for the privilege."
So companies wind up paying either for the time it takes to upgrade all the Linux machines, or for the extended support. "The cost ends up approaching Windows--if not surpassing it--fairly quickly," Silver says.
The idea that Linux is free and companies can save a lot of money by switching is a myth, he adds, one of many myths surrounding Linux deployment. "This has been a typical understanding, but a lot of organizations that have explored that have found that there's more to it," he says.
As a result, Gartner hasn't been seeing much interest in switching to Linux on the desktop, he says. "We get a lot more questions about switching to Macs than switching to Linux at this point, even though Macs are more expensive."
There has been more interest in open source software and operating systems in Europe and Latin America, Silver says. "But even that has been tapering off."
But the single biggest disadvantage Linux has on the desktop is in applications, says Patrick Gray, president of business strategy consultancy Prevoyance Group.
"Traditionally, Linux has been a bit more difficult to install, use, and manage, but much of that has been assuaged with variants like Ubuntu," he says. "But despite narrowing the usability gap, Linux still lacks many commercial-grade applications."
Where substitutes are available, he adds, most are not supported, or don't have the full feature sets of the commercial variants.
Plus, most professionals tend to be familiar with the leading commercial software products for the work that they do--the open source alternatives may require additional training, or cause productivity problems.
"While Linux is free, the cost of a large company to train users, and support these applications, will likely offset the software licensing expense [of Windows]," Gray says.
"The reason isn't security, usability or any other technology shortcoming," confirmed Mark Hinkle, director of the cloud computing community at Citrix Systems. "The inhibitor for adoption is applications."
Under Linux, he says, users can check their email, browse the Web, and use an office suite. "The problem is that things like custom billing apps, SAP, desktop productivity apps from Adobe and industry-specific apps are developed solely for the Windows desktop," he says.
Many applications are already moving to a cloud-based or browser-based delivery model, he adds. Those apps can run on any operating system with a browser, or on any smart mobile device. At that point, companies can start looking at Linux more seriously.
"Until then, Linux adoption on the desktop will be stifled."
According to Gartner's Silver, a typical organization will have one application for every 10 users, and, today, about half of those applications require the Windows operating system.
"That percentage has been declining, but still, it's pretty high," Silver says. "So if I have 10,000 users, and 1,000 applications, 500 of those applications will need Windows to run."
One intermediary solution, says Citrix' Hinkle, is to run a virtualized version of Windows on top of Linux, such as with Citrix XenClient or VMware, or use remote desktops such as Citrix XenDesktop, for those users who need specific Windows applications. "For example, the Google Chrome Netbooks complemented with apps redisplayed from a Citrix XenApp installation could be a very interesting solution for a number of users."
Virtual desktops can also be used to provide access to legacy apps for users of smart mobile devices, as well.
Next page: Making Linux on the desktop work