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Desktop Linux on the rise, Linux Foundation reports
Nov. 21, 2007

Analysis -- What do Linux users want from their desktop? The Linux Foundation's survey has the answers.

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While the LF's third annual desktop Linux survey doesn't officially end until November 30th, the number of daily respondents have shrunk to a trickle and the Foundation is working on analyzing the results. This is an early look at the raw data.

For starters, almost 20,000 self-selected users filled out this year's survey compared to fewer than 10,000 in 2006's survey. The survey, which drew primarily from European users (51.5 percent) followed by North Americans (35.8 percent), found that the vast majority of Linux desktops (68.4 percent) are deployed in SOHOs (small office / home office) and small business settings having one to a hundred PCs running Linux. Medium-sized businesses with user bases of 101 to 500 (9.7 percent) and 1,001 to 5,000 (6.2 percent) Linux desktops came next.

In those businesses and organizations that have deployed Linux desktops, 39.5 percent are running Linux on more than half of their machines. Even in Linux-oriented groups, Windows remains the single most popular desktop system, with 59.6 percent running on half or more of their desktops.

Still, this survey helps support the recent Forrester study, which found that Linux is becoming a credible threat to Windows on the desktop. Indeed, another recent desktop operating system survey, by KACE, a systems management appliance company, found that more Windows users are considering migrating to Mac OS and/or Linux (44 percent) than to Vista (13 percent).

Another interesting result from the LF survey is that in most company and organizations, the Linux desktop is more commonly used than Linux servers. From almost the beginning of Linux's business acceptance it has always been assumed that Linux was, is, and would continue to be more of a force on servers than on desktops. That appears to be changing.

A related surprise is that Linux desktops are no longer primarily used by developers or engineers. The survey found that 64 percent of Linux desktops are being used as client desktops. That is to say they're being used as replacements for ordinary Windows desktops rather than for high-end workstations. Many companies and groups (51.4 percent) are, of course, also using Linux as a developer's desktop.

These Linux desktop deployments are, for the most part (62.2 percent), real office deployments. Only a minority are deploying Linux in pilot tests.

Only 16.3 percent say they will not be using Linux on their desktops. Since this is an open survey for users who are interested in the Linux desktop, I suspect that this particular result indicates Windows users trying to twist the survey's results. As a survey of Linux desktop users, which deliberately tried to attract such users, the survey's bias is clearly toward the Linux desktop. Thus, the number of users who claim not to be using Linux should be taken with a grain of salt.

This conclusion is also supported by another survey question: "Do you have enough confidence in Linux today to use it for mission-critical applications?" There, the answer was 74.3 percent absolutely had that much trust in Linux, with 18.3 percent saying that they probably trusted Linux enough for mission critical use.

Preferred distributions

So what desktop Linux are people using in their organizations? The answer, which comes as no great surprise to anyone who's been following desktop Linux lately, is the Ubuntu family of Linuxes, at 54.1 percent. This was followed by the Red Hat family -- RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux/Fedora/CentOS) -- with 50.2 percent. The Novell SUSE group -- SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop) and openSUSE -- came in third, with 35.2 percent

Yes, that does add up to more than 100 percent. It would seem that groups using Linux in the office have not standardized on a particular distribution, or even a distribution family. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that Linux desktop proponents see issues such as support and end-user training to present "an obstacle for some users" interfering with desktop Linux adoption.

For personal use, Ubuntu once more easily led the pack, at 55.4 percent. Here, though, the community Linuxes, such as Debian (22.2 percent), Gentoo (10.2 percent), Knoppix (7.1 percent), and PCLinuxOS (5.4 percent) become significant players. It was also interesting to see that the commercially supported, community Linux distributions -- Novell's openSUSE (19.5 percent) and Red Hat's Fedora (16.7 percent) -- are, like Ubuntu, important distributions both in the office and at home.


Given a choice of applications to run on their Linux desktops, most users would prefer to run a native Linux application rather than a Windows application. In particular -- Adobe take note -- Linux users continue to really want Linux versions of Adobe's Photoshop and Dreamweaver. These were numbers one and three on the Linux users' Windows application migration wish list. Autodesk's AutoCAD was number two.

If Linux users can't run a particular application on Linux, and there's no native program that gives them similar functionality, they're almost perfectly divided between three different methods to get them their required program. These are using WINE, or a software built on WINE, such as Crossover Linux, to run the Windows application in Linux; virtualization; and switching to a browser-based application, such as Google Docs.

Device support

Device support, as always, remains a major concern among desktop Linux users. Printers, this time, took first place for the most trouble over the ever-popular WiFi network adaptors. It's not that printers aren't supported well in Linux -- they are. It's that users want all the bells and whistles that come on modern printers and all-in-one devices. These concerns are well known to Linux developers and are being addressed by Greg Kroah-Hartman and his group of device developers.

For printers, at a recent meeting of the Open Printing Group in Tokyo, developers and printer vendors got together to work in common purpose on improving general Linux and printer compatibility. In addition, the group is working on giving both the KDE and GNOME desktops a common printer dialog to make it easier for both users and vendors to access a printer's full capabilities regardless of the underlying distribution.

Finally the survey, perhaps reflecting that it was filled out mostly by users who have already taken the Linux plunge, found that pre-installed Linux desktops -- such as Dell's Ubuntu lines -- aren't all that attractive. 57 percent said that pre-installed Linux met their needs, while only 43 percent were willing to buy pre-installed Linux systems.

However you read the survey's specific results, one thing comes through loud and clear. The Linux desktop is being deployed in businesses today, and its numbers are increasing rapidly. Personally, I still consider 2005, which marked the release of SLED 9.3, to be the "Year of the Linux Desktop." The LF survey, and the others I mentioned earlier, all show that the Linux Desktop tipping point has already happened and we're still living through its resolution.

-- Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

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