Making it work
Despite these negatives, there are companies out there using Linux on employee desktops.
One, for example, is a small veterinary clinic, the Chester County Cat Hospital, located just outside Philadelphia, with 10 employees.
"We took over the business last June and last July is when I moved everything over to Linux," says financial manager Paul Stadler, who bought the business with his wife, the clinic's veterinarian.
"Linux was my comfort zone, and I knew I could get it to do what I wanted it to," Stadler says.
He uses an open source practice management software system, which employees access via a browser.
"They don't seem to have noticed that it's on Linux," he says.
The previous owners used a Windows-based practice management system, and inactive patients weren't ported over to the new platform. Stadler runs a Windows emulator if he needs to pull it up, he says.
In addition, there were some Office documents and spreadsheets. "Libre Office handled them seamlessly," Stadler says. "I don't think they [the former owners] knew what a macro was, so we didn't have to deal with that at all."
Employees have been using Libre Office without a problem, he adds, for simple tasks such as writing a letter to someone or moving some numbers around in an inventory tracking spreadsheet.
"I would say that, since July, they've probably come to me three times with a question on how to do something in that software," he says. "The less savvy your employees are, the less it matters -- everything they do is extremely simple."
Overall, Stadler says, he's probably saved around $10,000 a year in software costs, mostly as a result of the practice management software.
But he adds that he would have seen the same savings if he had stuck with Windows, since all the software can run on that platform, as well.
Meanwhile, drivers have sometimes been a hassle, he says. "The open source community packages them up for you, but at a pretty severe lag," he says. "When I bought new printers, I had to download the drivers. I got them to work, but you have to be technologically literate to do it. It was actually a challenge to get those drivers working."
LA-based InMotion Hosting is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the Chester County Cat Hospital when it comes to the technical skills of its employees.
The company's server farms are Linux-based, and many employees are comfortable working with Linux. As a result, about 25% run Linux on their desktops, says CEO Todd Robinson. Of the rest, 65% use Windows and the rest have Macs, he adds.
In addition to problems with finding software to run on Linux, and training staffers who have grown up using Windows or Macs, Robinson says Linux desktops also have a management problem.
"It's such a flexible environment that there's a lot of freedom to do things, even things you shouldn't do," he says. "A typical thing in a Windows setting is to establish some usage policies, and set up some limitations on the systems to keep them stable. Linux doesn't have those types of standards out of the box."
Instead, companies looking to centrally manage Linux desktops have to create those types of policies and limitations, he says. "Windows is set up that way."
Other large-scale examples of Linux deployments tend to fall into one of these two extremes. Either employees use their machines in very limited ways -- such as bank tellers, for example, or store clerks -- or in very sophisticated ways where they often write their own applications and need the power and control that Linux offers.
In the big middle ground, however, the applications rule, and companies choose the platforms that give employees the software they need to do their jobs. That means Windows for general business applications, and Macs for specialized graphics work.
As more companies embrace Bring Your Own Device, web-based application delivery, or virtual desktops, Linux may have some room to expand. Until then, it's still a Windows desktop world after all.
Maria Korolov is a freelance business and technology writer in Massachusetts. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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This story, "Why Linux Is a Desktop Flop" was originally published by Network World.