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10 July 2009, 09:03

Routing around the desktop

by Richard Hillesley

OS redesign

The nature of the enterprise desktop is changing, and the emphasis now is on instant accessibility, mobility and flexibility - attributes which Linux, on the server, desktop, netbook or mobile device, is well placed to provide

In a world on the move, a fast and elegant browser is the key to open every door. The network is the computer, and everything you need can be accessed from the cloud, which may reside at the hub of the LAN or across the wider network.

In such a world, the static PC on the desktop of every worker becomes less a necessity than a supplement to the working environment. Applications which once were stored on each and every device can be accessed over the airwaves or through the wires, and the capacity of the local hardware becomes less important - the local device can be a thin client, a full blown workstation or a smart phone.

The hard work is done by the server, and the permitted user can log-in from anywhere, at any time, from any device. The benefits for the organisation come from server consolidation and a massive reduction in costs on hardware, energy, storage, server sprawl and leakage of data.

In these circumstances, the breakthrough for Linux comes from its strength in the server space and on mobile devices, smart phones and netbooks, rather than fighting its corner on the traditional desktop, where the market is entrenched and is characterised by single vendor lock-in and interoperability log-jams.

Red Hat's Jim Whitehurst
Red Hat's Jim Whitehurst
This is the context behind the recent much quoted remark of Jim Whitehurst, the CEO of Red Hat, that "the concept of a desktop is kind of ridiculous in this day and age."

Where the puck is going

IBM takes a similar view. The policy is not so much that Linux can't do the desktop - IBM has been responsible for some massive Linux desktop migrations - but that mass adoption is just as likely to come through other routes at a time when diversity, cost, connectivity and conformance to standards are becoming the bigger issues. Whitehurst explained Red Hat's long held reservations about the economic viability of pushing Linux on the traditional desktop with an analogy from ice hockey.

"I'd rather think about skating to where the puck is going to be," he is reported to have said, "than where it is now."

Bob Young, former Red Hat CEO
Bob Young, former Red Hat CEO
Source: Joi - (CC)
This isn't necessarily a new perspective from Red Hat's point of view, despite the fact that Red Hat has an enterprise desktop offering with which it has had some success. As far back as 2001, Bob Young, one of the founders and former CEO of Red Hat, said: "If your priorities are reliability and reducing the administrative costs of your desktop users, then you should absolutely consider Linux-based solutions. But on a bigger picture level we're not interested in reinventing the desktop technology market, because it is 1980s technology." Red Hat's approach to winning the desktop market is to route around the desktop.

A similar subtext informs Jim Zemlin's blog on the successes for the Linux desktop at Computex in Taiwan, where Zemlin touts the Dell netbook, Intel's purchase of Wind River, and Palm's new smartphone as big wins for the Linux desktop.

Next: Blow your house down

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