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The perfect word

The first commercial software company to make the imaginative leap to Linux on the desktop was Corel. In 1999 Michael Cowpland, the British founder and CEO of Corel, predicted that Linux would revive Corel's fortunes, after accumulating losses of $265 million.

Corel Linux Corel would distribute its own version of Linux to promote sales of WordPerfect and CorelDraw. Corel ported WordPerfect and CorelDraw to Linux on Wine (Wine Is Not an Emulator), contributing considerable resources to Wine in the process. But the Linux ports were barely functional, and the desktop, adapted from KDE, had a proprietary file manager.

According to Forbes Magazine, Cowpland's prediction was that Linux would come into its own on "the next generation of Internet appliances, like keyboard-equipped cell phones that can surf the Web."

Cowpland's target was that by 2005 Corel could hope "to reap 50 per cent of its revenues from Linux applications". "This is the year when Internet appliances are going to take off," he predicted, with what now appears to have been some acuity.

Cowpland made the classic mistake of realising too early where the market was going, and running before the market could walk. Within months, he had been forced to step down, vowing to devote his time to working with unspecified Linux start-ups.

Corel Linux was sold to Xandros, which later absorbed another failing Linux desktop distribution, Linspire.

Xandros had its moment in the sun when it was adopted as the default operating system for the ASUS Eee PC, through which it claimed to gain 1.5 million users, but was dropped by Asus in 2008. Both Xandros and Linspire hoped to make money by selling free and proprietary software through an online store via the desktop, and failed.

The Xandros web site now appears to be dormant.

Mandriva In between Caldera and Corel came Linux Mandrake, which found a business model for its time, selling Linux through a lucrative distribution deal with Macmillan Publishing. By August 1999, Macmillan was claiming that its sales of Linux, based on Mandrake, accounted for 52 per cent of Linux retail sales in the United States. But the deal eventually fell through, and in January 2003, Mandrake, now known as Mandriva, had to file for bankruptcy protection. Mandrake merged with Conectiva to form Mandriva and is now a shadow of its former self.

The difficulty for all these companies was to find a coherent model for selling Linux on the desktop, at a time when Linux on the commercial desktop had yet to take off.

The great pretender

The latest pretender to the desktop throne is Ubuntu. As Mark Shuttleworth points out:

"The vast majority of software-related revenue in the FLOSS ecosystem goes to distributions.

Within that segment, Red Hat claims 80% market share of paid Linux, a number that is probably accurate. Novell, the de facto #2, is in the midst of some transition, but indicators are that it continues to weaken. Oracle's entry into the RHEL market has had at best marginal impact on RHEL economics (the substantial price rises in RHEL 6 are a fairly clear signal of the degree to which Red Hat believes it faces real competition). The existence of 'unpaid RHEL' in the form of CentOS, as well as OEL, essentially strengthens the position of RHEL itself. Ubuntu and Debian have large combined levels of adoption, but low revenue."

The difference between Red Hat and Ubuntu is that Red Hat has concentrated on server-side Linux and its partnerships with IBM and HP, and is in a segment of the market that can and will pay for subscriptions, installation, training, support, upgrades and maintenance. Ubuntu is seen primarily as a consumer desktop operating system that is free to use, has many more users than Red Hat, but is relatively low on sources of income.

Ubuntu For the last seven years Ubuntu has been the most popular Linux on the street, and has succeeded in popularising Linux on the desktop for the 'ordinary' user. The business model has been relatively straightforward – to make Ubuntu synonymous with Linux, attractive and hassle free to the user – raise the profile, and give it away, in the hope that the money will return later through OEM sales, non-specific add-ons and maintenance and support.

The achievements of Ubuntu, the Ubuntu developers and the Ubuntu community can be measured by its success in fulfilling its mandate of popularising Linux, and are a testament not only to the community and the developers but to the resources and commitment poured into Ubuntu by Mark Shuttleworth and Canonical, Ubuntu's holding company.

Ubuntu is a clean and polished experience for those new to GNU/Linux – easy to install, easy to use, easy to update, and easy to manage, but still struggles to find revenue. OEM deals haven't taken off, and despite some successes in the server space and with cloud technologies, Ubuntu has failed to gain sufficient momentum as an alternative for the corporate desktop.

The adoption of Unity and the Harmony Project can be seen as part of the search for answers to this conundrum, but Harmony hasn't made the case for copyright assignment, and Unity, which hopes to project Ubuntu into a future where the market is dominated by smart phones and touch screen devices, isn't popular.

Ubuntu is in danger of falling between two stools, failing to reach sufficient commercial outlets, and simultaneously damaging its relationships with its own community.

A modest proposal

For far too long pundits have been claiming that Linux on the desktop is at a tipping point, but nothing has changed. Part of the problem is inertia and lack of interest from the OEMs who could make a difference, and another is lack of coherence in the desktop itself. None of this is helped by the absence of a cohesive strategy for providing marketing and support services for corporate users – or the failure of individual Linux companies to achieve the sales volumes to justify such a strategy.

OEMs, ISVs, governments, corporate users and device manufacturers all have a common interest in open standards and working environments that aren't beset by interoperability logjams and vendor tie-ins. The free desktop is a workable proposition, and has a massive potential as a tool for a variety of commercial interests, and as a tool for developing the desktop future.

Maybe the time is right to bring developers and communities together under the umbrella of the Linux Foundation or a similar body, and use economies of scale to put together an industry reference desktop distribution for desktop and mobile devices, with a worldwide network of companies, large and small, offering support and maintenance on a model not so different to the Linux kernel itself.

As I wrote above: if the Linux companies – distributors and consultancies – pool their resources, then collectively they will have a greater reservoir to draw from: of support, of marketing, of commonality and process. Collaboration works, and if the Linux companies can work together, they can also hope to draw on the support of the community, and the many OEMs, ISVs, governments, corporate users and device manufacturers who have a common interest in making the free desktop work as a vehicle for development and change.

For other feature articles by Richard Hillesley, please see the archive.

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