The Future of Linux

As a software developer, I get to see aspects of Windows, Linux, UNIX and Mac OS X of which end-users are oblivious. In previous posts, (for example, What Linux Needs to Learn from Windows) I have bemoaned the lack of standards between Linux distributions and the lack of system APIs. I’ve also praised Microsoft for delivering useful functionality in .NET (Programming is Fun [Again]).

Is Linux doomed to fail? Will Microsoft continue its hegemony?

If you read my series The Decline and Fall of Microsoft you know that I think Microsoft is facing some huge structural challenges. Nevertheless, here’s what I think is going to happen over the next 5 years:

  1. Microsoft will lose a large percentage of the general-purpose PC business to Apple. It will keep 50% or so, but mostly for dedicated workstations. Apple will take a majority of the laptop business.
  2. IT departments will continue to replace proprietary UNIX servers with Linux, especially given the move towards more virtualization.
  3. Windows will see an increased share of the server business driven by .NET and Sharepoint applications.
  4. Linux on the desktop will see minimal gains.
  5. Linux will dominate in the special-purpose, sub-notebook, business (such as with the Eee PC on which I am currently typing). Linux will also see increased use in some specific scenarios that require limited application availability.

All in all, I think there will be growth for Linux but it will actually lose overall composite share. I believe this for several reasons.

Although Linux is growing in the server business, I think that Microsoft will soon surpass its growth rate, if it hasn’t already (I don’t have my IDC numbers handy). Linux server growth is driven by UNIX-to-Linux conversions (i.e. new Oracle servers running Linux instead of Solaris) and by Apache server use. I think the former is a limited business and I think the latter is already limited by overall market growth. To grow share, Linux has to take away Windows server business, especially in the Intranet, and I don’t see this happening. Why? I think that Microsoft is winning the war for the hearts and minds of developers. Microsoft is an API company. Red Hat (except for JBoss) and Novell are not. Innovations in Linux API are mostly made by other companies (MySQL, Eclipse, Sugar CRM, etc.) and are often OS-independent. Microsoft, having totally stumbled on Vista, seems to have not screwed up Windows Server 2008, Sharepoint and SQL Server.

In the general-purpose, desktop/laptop business, Linux is missing Microsoft Office. In spite of the things I dislike about Office 2007, it’s still the Swiss Army knife of productivity software. Open Office is a poor, poor, substitute at any price. Even Office for the Mac is a poor substitute but it’s good enough. Workers who have the freedom to buy what they want (e.g. executives, technoids) will buy Macs. Vista is an embarrasment. I wish Microsoft would just port WPF and the new shell to XP, throw out everything else in Vista and admit its mistakes.

The only segment that I see Linux gaining market share is the specialty-use market. Sub-notebooks, like my Eee PC want to keep costs very low. This means they need an inexpensive OS that doesn’t require a lot of resources to run. Vista won’t cut it. Windows CE is too limited. I’d love to run Mac OS X on my Eee PC but I can’t without riling Apple’s lawyers. Linux is the only choice. Similarly, we’ve run into one or two companies that want to install Linux on a computer to use it only as a Citrix terminal. What’s weird is that they’ll be using Linux to run Windows applications via remote terminal services.

On the whole, this is not a very exciting future for Linux. There is still money to be made in the Linux business and Red Hat, Novell and others may be satisfied with the niches that I’ve described above. Personally, I find my prognoses somewhat depressing. I like Mac OS X but Apple’s walled-garden mentality is very 1980s. Microsoft still has a strong platform for software developers but I think that over time, their size and inability to execute will infect all areas in the company.

I wish that Linux was a better operating system than it is. I’d love there to be a credible alternative to the mess of Microsoft and the tyranny of Apple.

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