Skip navigation

Top Stories of 2001, #5: Linux Falters on the Desktop

For the past few years, you could confidently predict that every computer industry pundit in the world would write an article about the rise of Linux on the desktop. "1999 will be THE year of Linux on the desktop," they cried. "OK, seriously, 2000 is it! Well, maybe 2001." Maybe not. In 2001, the dot-com market officially dried up, the economy nosedived into a cyclical recession, and the market for Linux on the desktop remained nonexistent.

On a more positive note, Linux desktop advancements are quite impressive, and if you haven't tried this open-source solution recently, I recommend products such as Ximian Desktop and Evolution, two highlights of the Linux desktop movement. But as 2001 came to a close, any hope that Linux would supplant Windows desktop versions ebbed right along with it. Linux isn't a disaster, of course; the OS commands a healthy percentage of the small-server market. But the one-time Linux steamroller has stalled at the Gates of Windows, and the fact that the desktop is one market Linux will never conquer has become increasingly obvious. Besides, if you want a desktop UNIX, Mac OS X is so much more elegant.

Back in January 2001, however, Mac OS X hadn't shipped, and many Linux companies were planning heady desktop improvements. On January 11, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer even declared that Linux was the number-one threat to Windows. He described the OS as a "phenomenon" that the company must address.

The first chink in the desktop Linux armor appeared in late January when Corel announced that it would drop its popular Linux products and focus instead on its creative applications in an attempt to return to profitability. Predictably, the term profitability would be a recurring theme in 2001 as desktop Linux companies dropped off the map.

February opened on an ugly note with a trash-talking, anti-Linux article on Microsoft's Web site. The piece, titled "Linux to Fall by the Wayside," included some interesting Linux spin from Microsoft Senior Vice President Joachim Kempin. "Linux is too expensive," he said. "This is because each company has to invest an unreasonable amount of time and money in Linux verification. As a result, the total cost of system installation and operation (TCO) is too high, effectively making Linux a very expensive OS. Vendors who are building up their Linux businesses are making a serious mistake and need to wake up to that fact quickly." But Kempin saved his most vitriolic language for a question about Linux growth. "Linux is simply a fad that has been generated by the media and is destined to fall by the wayside in time," he continued. "Windows 2000 will gradually overtake the Linux share in the server market. In fact, the advent of Linux has spurred Microsoft's developers to move up a gear. The arrival of new competitors in applications or OS development provides us at Microsoft with the driving force to create even better software products."

In a Wired magazine article, Doug Miller, Microsoft's group product manager for competitive strategies, attacked the idea that free was better. "The recent security problems with Linux, coupled with the lack of key enterprise elements in the new kernel, really call into question whether Linux should be used at all," he said. Miller told Wired that the recent dot-com shutdowns also would be replayed in the Linux community. "Free does not sustain a business," Miller said. "Development costs money, \[quality assurance\] costs money, support costs money. We have yet to see a business model in the Linux world that has any chance of long-term success."

In March, we saw more indications that Miller was on to something. An International Data Corporation (IDC) study reported that Microsoft's desktop share had actually grown from 89 percent the previous year to 92 percent. But an even more amazing fact was that Microsoft's share of the server market had outgrown upstart Linux, leaping from 38 percent of the market last year to 41 percent by 2001. Linux also grew, but at a slower rate than in the past, and the growth of this open-source OS apparently came at the expense of Novell and various versions of UNIX, not of Windows. Linux grew from 25 percent of the market last year to 27 percent in 2001. On the desktop, Linux's share was barely measurable; IDC placed it at about 1 percent.

In a bizarre move, Microsoft announced in early March that it would expand the release of Windows source code to a wider range of companies. However, Microsoft heavily restricted the release, which it targeted more for its public-relations benefits than anything else. After IBM announced sweeping support for Linux that month, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer lashed out at the open-source OS, providing the kind of sound bites that just make people like me smile and shake their heads. "\[IBM supporting Linux\] will have an impact, but Linux is a toy," Ballmer said. "IBM has not participated in the modern software revolution. Who are you going to bet on--Microsoft or IBM? I'll take that bet any day."

In early May, Microsoft's anti-Linux crusade continued when Senior Vice President Craig Mundie used a New York University speech to trash the OS and its open-source roots. "As history has shown," Mundie said, "this type of model isn't successful in building a mass market and making powerful, easy-to-use software broadly accessible to consumers." Mundie said that open source software (OSS) might have made sense in the 1970s, when software was basically tied to hardware. Today, he says, hardware is wide open, so intellectual property is instead tied to software. Mundie's comments predictably garnered the collective wrath of the open-source community.

By mid-May, the most promising desktop Linux company, Eazel, called it quits. Founded by ex-Apple developers, Eazel had been working on easy-to-use desktop software. Eazel's stuff was good, and former employees promised to keep updating the software, but that effort mostly died off over time. Eazel's demise was probably the most damaging Linux desktop loss of the year.

In June, Gartner reported that Linux growth and market penetration were far less than previously thought. The company said that most of Linux's success had come from "white box" servers used at "mom-and-pop operations." And when you discounted these mostly meaningless boxes, Linux's market share on the server was closer to 6 percent, not the 27 percent previously reported. "Linux continues to be on a growth path," the report reads, "and \[Gartner\] believes the demand for Linux-based servers will grow to 10 percent of \[overall\] server shipments in 2001. The primary demand for these servers will be as Internet or infrastructure servers \[e.g., DNS, gateways\]." Gartner noted that its primary goal for the report, which Microsoft at least partly funded, was to establish realistic market-share data for Linux.

Microsoft couldn't stay out of the debate. Miller told eWEEK that Microsoft helped sponsor the study to see exactly who was using Linux. "There has been a lot of hype around Linux over the past year, and we wanted to ... find out the real story on its adoption," Miller said. "While I admit there has been interest in Linux, this by no means accounts for one out of every four new servers sold. That is simply ridiculous." According to Miller, the vast majority of Linux sales and downloads occurred so users could experiment with it, but the OS was rarely deployed.

On June 22, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates issued an infamous statement in which he compared Linux to Pac-Man. Mundie followed this statement with a late July appearance at an open-source conference. Amazingly, Mundie emerged unscathed, although reports differ on who won the debate in which he participated.

Citing an utter lack of sales, the world's largest PC maker, Dell, cancelled desktop Linux sales on its PCs in August. "Not that many customers are using Linux for their desktop systems," Dell's Jim Mazzola said. "We're a customer-demand-driven company, so as we see customer demand in certain areas that's where we opt to sell certain products or services." The bad news continued later that month when respected game developer John Carmack, who created DOOM, Quake, and other best-selling titles, railed against Linux. "It has been pretty clearly demonstrated that the Mac market is barely viable and \[that\] the Linux market is not viable for game developers to pursue," Carmack wrote. "Linux ports will be done out of good will, not profit motives. From an economic standpoint, \[developers aren't\] making a bad call if they ignore the existence of all platforms but Windows." In response to how well Linux games have sold, Carmack made some grim comments about the open-source solution. "\[The sales from\] all Linux games ever sold \[combined\] don't add up to \[the sales generated by\] one medium-selling Windows title," he said. That same week, staunch open-source supporter VA Linux announced that it would sell proprietary software to grow stagnant sales; the company later announced that it would remove the word Linux from its name.

Linux celebrated its 10th anniversary at the end of August, and although the OS had been quite successful, the mounting evidence that the revolution was stalling somewhat dimmed the celebration. That same week, Corel announced that it would sell off its Linux distribution rights for one-fifth the original asking price. But the company that bought the rights has yet to release its own distribution, effectively killing a once-proud OS release.

Netcraft chimed in on the Linux market-share issue in October, noting that Windows Servers actually dominate the Web with almost 50 percent of the market. Netcraft awarded Linux 30 percent of the market. By November, Gates attempted to take credit for inventing Open Source, but his argument is difficult to defend, so I mention it for historical (and humor) purposes only.

In early December, one of the few remaining viable desktop Linux companies, Ximian, released its watershed product, Evolution, a desktop-oriented personal information manager (PIM) package that apes virtually every feature in Microsoft's Outlook product. But Linux still lacks a credible Microsoft Office alternative; perhaps Ximian can work on an alternative in 2002.

Finally, 2001 ended on a controversial note with a Web Side Story survey that reported that only 0.24 percent of PC desktops use Linux, compared to about 98 percent for Windows. "For almost 3 years, Linux usage share has fluctuated between 0.2 and 0.3 percent, with no substantial growth," Web Side Story noted. Linux advocates, who had no particular data to back up their claims, refuted the assertion. So did others--one humorous example was a site called Low End Mac which purportedly contorted its server logs to show that Linux was in use by far more than 0.24 percent of the public. Note to Low End Mac: The few people who visit your site don't represent an accurate snapshot of overall Web use; sorry.

However you measure it--by absolute dollars or actual use--Linux has never achieved the desktop success that's so often predicted. That doesn't mean that it can't grow in this market; indeed, growth is much easier when there's no place to go but up. But for those people who had hoped to see Linux produce a credible desktop contender, one fact is now clear: It isn't happening any time soon. And it most certainly didn't happen in 2001.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.