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The irrelevance of desktop LinuxMatthew Aslett, November 2, 2007 @ 8:09 am ET
Can Google save desktop Linux? Or more accurately, can online applications? I have previously been skeptical about the potential for Linux to ever make serious in-roads on the desktop market. The problem as I see it is that desktop Linux is stuck in a Catch-22 situation where ISVs will not support it if they don’t see support from major hardware vendors, and hardware vendors are not interested because there isn’t the mainstream ISV support to drive demand.
Throw in the fact that Microsoft provides the software that most consumers would consider necessary for desktop machines and which also drives the vast proportion of PC and laptop hardware revenue, and there is no economic incentive for any of the IHVs and ISVs to promote Linux in the manner that would be required for it to make a dent in the market.
Yes, Dell has introduced Linux PCs and notebooks, Lenovo is working on a Linux notebook, and HP is testing the market but these moves are about fulfilling the limited demand for desktop Linux machines, rather than attempting to create new demand. The hardware vendors are not trying to change the dynamic of the market because there is no incentive for them to do so while Microsoft software is the primary revenue generator.
But what if the dynamic of the market was changed by something else, such as the use of web-based applications making the choice of desktop operating system less relevant? We’re clearly nowhere near that situation yet, but its that possibility that makes the Everex gPC so interesting.
Available from Wal-Mart for under $200, the gPC is configured to run “Gmail, Google Docs & Spreadsheets, Google Calendar, Google Product Search, Google Blogger, Google YouTube, Google Maps, Google News, Meebo (instant messaging), GIMP (image editing), Firefox, Xing Movie Player, RhythmBox (iTunes substitute), Faqly (tech support), Facebook, Skype and OpenOffice.org 2.2″ according to ZDnet.
The whole thing runs on gOS, a version of Ubuntu that is optimized for web-based applications. It is not the Google Linux that has long been rumored and denied but it does have the company’s seal of approval.
“The gOS is an alternative operating system that makes it apparent that Google is your entire computing experience,” gOS founder David Liu told ZDnet. “When you make Linux look pretty and put ton of Google apps on it, you pacify it for consumer. You could say gOS is Google inspired but not official stamped.”
Whether this sort of web-PC will take off depends on how quickly web-based applications are picked up by mainstream consumers, but it is a change in the market dynamic that opens the door slightly to Linux. After all, if the Internet effectively becomes your operating system then why do you need Windows?
As the PC increasingly becomes a device for accessing online services the technology that runs on the PC itself increasingly becomes irrelevant to the consumer. The less relevant the desktop operating system becomes, the more likely it is that Linux will start to make in-roads.
UPDATE – Of course just because the OS is irrelevant to the user, does not mean that the OS is irrelevant to the vendor. There is of course a market opportunity for supplying the underlying technology that connects people to the Internet (be that via the PC, TV, kiosk or other device). The opportunity lies in no longer thinking about the desktop as being defined by the traditional PC. (For more on this, see my follow-up, the client opportunity for Linux). Red Hat is already thinking along these lines.
NB: I should perhaps clarify that I am talking specifically about the consumer desktop market here. The dynamic in the business market is slightly different although clearly the rise of browser-based applications means that there are increasingly good arguments for Linux on the desktop for a significant number of business users.
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