Linux desktop ready for corporate users

While its lack of gaming and media support limits Linux as a viable consumer option, it is suited for the corporate environment.
Muggie van Staden
By Muggie van Staden, CEO, Obsidian Systems.
Johannesburg, 16 May 2008

The debate has raged for years now as to whether Linux is ready for wide adoption as a desktop operating system.

While Linux and open source have proven themselves in the server environment, the desktop computing space is still widely dominated by Microsoft's Windows, with some growth in Apple Macintosh users.

While Linux is also growing as a desktop operating system, it is not quite ready for wide use by consumers. That said, Linux is certainly ready as a corporate desktop solution.

Consumers vs corporates

The reason the open source operating system can be used by corporate users but not everyday consumers is because the needs of these two categories of user are different. While Linux meets the requirements of most corporates, the consumer domain is somewhat different.

Corporate users usually function within a controlled environment where their application set is specified by management. Users in this environment are most likely utilising desktop computers that are pre-configured for them and onto which they are usually not allowed to install applications without the help of the IT department. E-mail, spreadsheets, word processing, Web browsing and the other basic functionality that is required by most desk workers is comprehensively catered for in Linux with the likes of

By selecting Linux as a desktop operating system in corporate environments, businesses can save money on licensing costs, both for the operating system and open source applications it runs.

Linux also offers a robust environment in which users can easily be provisioned and controlled with excellent security and tools available to administrators.

Even further up the corporate ladder at management levels, Linux is still a viable desktop solution, given that even managers with laptops and other dedicated resources seldom need more than productivity software.

Unskilled consumers

While Linux meets the requirements of most corporates, the consumer domain is somewhat different.

Muggie van Staden is MD of Obsidian Systems.

Corporate environments are also moving increasingly towards software-as-a-service and other forms of services-based applications that are accessed in browser windows and do not require dedicated client software.

Linux is a good option in these environments as it is provided without convoluted licensing models and can be rapidly deployed.

It is media support and commercial gaming that challenge Linux as a viable consumer desktop offering. If consumers only need basic Internet and productivity functionality for their home computers, then the likes of Mandriva and Ubuntu Linux distributions are an option. But more often than not, home users will want to make use of digital media and play games on their personal computers. While it is possible for Linux to provide these things, it is usually not without some form of tweaking and emulation.

The average home user does not have the time, skills or inclination required to tweak Linux and manipulate its environment for commercial gaming and wide-scale media use.

Most Linux distributions are also loath to include the required emulators, drivers and codecs with their distributions because it will require them to bundle proprietary software, tainting their open source code and introducing licensing issues. Ubuntu, for example, is a committed open source distribution and would not include proprietary software.

Gaming woes

Commercial 3D games require direct hardware rendering from a personal computer, which means operating systems must run vendor-developed drivers from Nvidia, AMD or other card and chipset manufacturers.

These drivers are distributed freely but are proprietary and hardly ever included out-of-the box with Linux. They can also be tricky to install, given the variety of Linux distributions which each have different package-management methodologies.

The games are also often developed for Windows and require emulators or spoofed environments to run, again requiring proprietary software and a decent knowledge of Linux on the part of the user.

Consumers also have different needs and expectations that they focus on and most do not feel strongly one way or the other as to whether they are using proprietary or open source code.

While developers such as Linspire are making great progress in making consumer desktop Linux distributions a viable option, they are simply not there yet. And it is impossible to predict when the barriers to entry for consumer Linux desktops will be overcome.

On the corporate side, however, Linux has already proven itself as a viable desktop option both in private and public sector implementations. Case studies of this nature include the South African government, which is far down the path of open source adoption and already successfully running Linux desktops in some departments. On the corporate side, First National Bank is an example of an enterprise that has deployed thousands of Linux desktops.

Of course, it must be added that the effective use of Linux in the corporate arena requires sufficient support and certification. This means working with a committed and proven vendor that certifies its product for use with specific infrastructure and has appointed local partners who can provide sufficient support and training. With these requirements met, Linux offers a superior consumer desktop environment to any of its proprietary competition.

* Muggie van Staden is MD of Obsidian Systems.