Google and the Desktop Linux Experiment

Tuesday Dec 30th 2008 by Rob Enderle
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Google and Phoenix Technology plan to find a middle ground between Apple, Linux, and Microsoft in the hope that they can outdo Apple and become a real challenger to Windows.

Linux on the desktop faces some nasty realities in 2009, including a vastly improved Windows 7, an increasing use of the MacOS, and a broader move by Google with their proprietary Linux solution currently called Android.

The most interesting product set to hit the market is Phoenix Technology's Hyperspace, which, while based on Linux, is actually modeled after a future version of the MacOS. End users never cared much for coding or UNIX. They have generally rejected Linux and, against Windows, only the MacOS has shown legs.

With massive financial pressure on everyone, I think 2009 will spell the end of the marginal run that Ubuntu and Open Office made for the desktop. Yes, a lot of Netbooks went out with Linux on them, but the secret that isn't being widely discussed is the majority of them were returned and Windows XP has been winning the day against all comers.

This last fact indicates that Microsoft is at risk until Windows 7 ships in 2009, and maybe even after, but not from Ubuntu Linux.

Why Free Doesn't Play: The Open Office Example

Just before the holidays I spent some time chatting with Bruno Mangiardi, the CIO for the city of Sudbury, in Ontario, Canada, on why they replaced Open Office with Microsoft Office. His reasoning, in these hard financial times, explains why I think we are going to exit 2010 thinking it is over on the desktop for these two offerings.

This was based on a case study published by Microsoft, but it is always good to actually chat with the folks involved because vendors are seldom an unbiased source of information on their own, or competitor's products.

A few years back Sudbury had a problem; they were generally running Corel Perfect Office but were having compatibility problems with Quattro Pro and were having to give an increasing number of employees Microsoft Excel to get around them. They decided to save money and move to Open Office and standardize. While this eliminated the various products from a variety of vendors and saved software cost, support costs spiked along with compatibility problems and Sudbury had to go back to issuing copies of Microsoft Office to contain support costs.

Eventually they came to the very real conclusion that the money being saved in software was being overwhelmed by the resources being chewed up due to compatibility problems, not just with other cities, but with their own PeopleSoft-based backend systems.

So they reversed the decision and standardized on Microsoft Office 2007 (interestingly enough, on Windows XP) and support problems plummeted. The end result, which has been mirrored in a number of other accounts which haven't chosen to go public, is the city saved money in the end. But it wasn't the money that was the driving factor, it was the human resources because Sudbury, like most public and private entities, had limited human resources and simply couldn't staff up to the needs that Open Office required.

In 2009, the one thing there will be a big shortage of is people as various entities are forced to cut staff to bring costs in line with declining revenue. Free Software doesn't come close to overcoming this staffing issue because you simply don't save enough on the software to hire enough people to deal with the various incompatibilities. Open Source does you no good if you don't even have the time needed to support the product let alone muck with the code.

In short, and this is something we have said since the 1980s, users and IT organizations really don't want to be in the software business. They just want stuff to work.

Hyperspace and Android

Two vendors evidently learned the Apple lesson and will be coming to market with PC platforms in 2009 based on Linux.

Google's Android derivative for the desktop is rumored to be undergoing broad beta testing inside Google at this moment, and Phoenix Technology is expected to launch their long anticipated Hyperspace desktop virtual machine technology early in 2009.

Both products are based on Linux but with more of an Apple than a traditional Open Source spin, with benefits largely coming from their related applications stores and not whether the source code for either is "Open" or not. Neither is expected to be Free as in "Free Beer." But Desktop Android could be Ad subsidized and, to the user, the difference may not be important.

The Hyperspace product is a fast boot, extra secure environment for getting access to a safe browser and backend applications while getting the most performance out of a PC as quickly as technically possible. Like Google Chrome, it's initially pretty basic but is expected to become vastly more capable as it matures and more applications become available for it. If successful, users may find themselves using it more often than the Windows image that will co-reside with it.

Desktop Android is not well known yet but likely will have a lot in common with the cell phone version, just be more robust and capable of doing more Windows-like things. It is also expected to boot incredibly fast and come with a rich Application Store.

Chrome, the Google Browser, is being positioned to take the value out of Windows through Cloud-based applications and, if successful, virtually eliminate the migration cost over time. Desktop Android is a precursor to a Cloud-based future .

Both offerings will bring with them a high degree of quality control, which could exceed Apple's and, because both will be hardware independent, both will gain economies of scale that Apple's hardware based model just can't match. This will be their strength and their weakness.

The weakness is they will have a harder time assuring the overall quality of the solution than Apple does. But both seem aware of the quality mess that surrounds Windows and are working to overcome it with their platforms by doing better job of assuring third party applications and drivers in-house.

Desktop Linux Following Desktop UNIX

Desktop UNIX never made it as UNIX but has been surprisingly successful as the MacOS. Yet unfortunately the idea of software that could both challenge Microsoft and be free is simply not reasonable.

The resounding lesson that many don't seem to learn is that if you want to be successful on the desktop you have to provide a solution that users, not coders, get excited about and one is not the same as the other.

Both Apple and Microsoft learned that lesson early on and now two other companies, Google and Phoenix Technology, plan to find a middle ground between Apple, Linux, and Microsoft in the hope they can outdo Apple and become a real challenger to Windows either initially as an enhancement (Hyperspace) or a replacement (Desktop Android). In 2009 we'll find out if either has the right stuff and whether Windows 7 will be up to the competition.

Windows 7 has its coming out party in a couple weeks. It will need to address quality, migration cost, and be a more compelling offering to users than Vista is to hold the line, otherwise Microsoft will bleed share – how much will depend on how good the alternatives are.

We may be saying goodbye to products like Ubuntu Linux, but the code will live on in products that will seem even more tightly controlled than Windows in order to address the quality problems that have plagued Microsoft, but are more Open than the Open Source-based MacOS.

The irony in all of this will likely give us much to comment about in the New Year. Here is hoping we are all around to enjoy it.

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