Far From Home



For the last year and a half, one would have been hard put in the IT industry
to not hear about Linux. Whether it’s with doubt, fascination or fanatical
belief, Linux has gained mindshare enough to become more of a faith than a
platform in a short while. The server front, some would arguably claim, was the
first place that Linux found a foothold that took it beyond the realm of the
pure techie. Even as that entry has Microsoft worried enough to consider it one
of the top challenges of the years ahead, the past few months has seen the grand
entry of Linux on the desktop front in most Asian countries.

"I have been using a Linux desktop since 1985. Then there were a few
problems, but since 1991, with the GUI in place, I have encountered nothing the
matter with using it for my desktop. In fact, in all the time that I have used
it, Linux has never crashed. It’s not only appropriate for the desktop, it is
the only appropriate one," says Sudhir Gandotra, CEO of Indserve Infotech,
a Linux-based software development and support organization.

Others agree that Linux has grown in its user friendliness as it has in its
popularity in the desktop space. It is due to Linux’s growing appropriateness
for the desktop environment that most major OEMs, from IBM to Rashi, have rushed
to offer it.

What’s Holding Linux Back?
Like anything in a relatively nascent stage, Linux has its own set of issues
which, though will certainly be solved in the long run, might hold back the pace
with which its adoption increases.

"One of the things that could be affecting the acceptance of the Linux
desktop for the consumer is the lack of applications. Though most of the basic
applications are taken care of in Linux, it is still true that many an
application that is available on Windows is not yet possible on Linux,"
says Taranath, CEO of GT Enterprises, one of the oldest organizations in India
who has been dealing with Linux OS implementation and support.

While applications being so, Linux could also be held up with support issues
while many offer a counterpart to that.

"Linux is an open source creation. By its very nature support is freely
available. All that a consumer has to do is go on the net, put in the problem
and he will get answers instantaneously, probably he will get solutions much
faster than any other OS. The question is not one of support, but one of
awareness among the consumer," says Manikandan, DGM – Marketing for LG
India.

Which brings us to what could probably be the biggest show stopper for Linux—the
lack of familiarity with the OS among users.

"More than 85% of the people who buy Linux desktops from the dealers go
home and change the OS to a pirated version of a proprietary one. Most of that
is driven by the fact that they are not familiar with Linux and feel more
comfortable with the ones they have been using for so long. Linux OS just gives
them a chance to afford a branded desktop," says Rohit Agarwal, business
manager – RP Tech System Division of Rashi Peripherals.

Agrees Gandotra that the consumer for the large part is still unaware of how
advanced Linux has become. But then who is to take the marketing burden that the
propagation of Linux will involve?

"The OEMs have to take more of the burden without doubt. For the reason
that they have the girth and the resources to actually market Linux. Actual
Linux distributors and forums lack the funds to push it," says Gandotra.

Javed Tapia, MD, RedHat-India, echoes Gandotra, while saying that they cannot
afford to spend on advertising. "We have been propagating Linux in our own
way as we cannot spend millions. Linux, more than anything else, is a movement
and it will grow in momentum the way it has grown so far—by word of
mouth."

While most in the industry agree that all of the above are probably the most
important issues that could potentially affect the rise of Linux among the
consumer desktop, there are a few who state that Linux has no issues at all. One
of these voices is that of Atul Chitnis, director of Exocore Consulting and part
of the Bangalore Linux Users Group (BLUG) who believes that all of the problems
widely stated are purely perception related.

He disagrees strongly with the statistic that 85% of people who buy Linux
desktops go home only to change their OS. "While it is true that some
people will inevitably buy a cheap machine with pre-installed Linux on it, only
to wipe it out and install pirated Windows, this is a real minority. I have a
very good reason for my claim – the knowledge that most people have never
installed an OS before.

They stick with what comes pre-installed on their machine, which is why we
have so many Windows installations in first place. A more reasonable statement
would be "some people, who are helplessly criminally bent, and who have the
technical expertise to do so, will erase their Linux installation that came with
their PC, and install pirated Windows", is his argument.

His argument does sound firm. But the fact remains that there is a percentage
of consumers who buy Linux only because of the cost advantages they offer. It
follows that unless there is an education campaign along with strong and obvious
support structures around Linux, that percentage is not going to change for some
time.

In other words, Linux might have to take on at least the feel of proprietary
software, in the form of distributors like Red Hat, to become a success among
the consumer. Whether it takes on that garb and how that will affect its
evolution would be interesting to track in the near future.

Penguin Jig
Meanwhile, there are a plethora of Linux desktops available in the market
and consumers can pick from bundled freeware to the latest Red Hat OS which
comes with technical support.

But the point remains that for most of the OEMs who offer the desktop, the
consumer is not the primary target. In fact, the term ‘Linux desktop’ is
often taken at face value to indicate an implementation of such in an
enterprise.

"Most of our business comes in from enterprises. No doubt about that. It
will take sometime for the consumer side to take off," says Taranath.

The consumer therefore is at the bottom of a distribution ladder that is
following the top down approach to Linux penetration.

Even huge Linux distribution companies like Red Hat, which recently announced
a new version of the Linux OS meant for corporate use, are slightly skewed
towards the enterprise. That’s where the major market and money comes from,
that’s where the concentration prevails — simple business logic.

That’s one of the biggest reasons that though there is generally a hue and
cry about introducing Linux desktops in the market, most vendors fall silent
when asked for numbers sold since launch. Numbers remain pathetically low
because they are not concentrating enough on the consumer market.

For most vendors in the market that attitude is just fine. They are most
happy to let things move at its own pace and for Linux desktops to trickle down
to the masses from enterprises. The truth is, vendors sell Linux to consumers
not because they believe Linux to be the next big thing on the desktop, but
because of the cost advantage it offers which makes their own desktops more
attractive and thereby leads to more sales.

"The only reason (today) for vendors to sell Linux desktops is very
simple – they sell, and at greater profit for the vendors," says Atul
Chitnis.

True. While some might argue that this continued indifference of the vendors
towards the consumer segment might prove to be eventually harmful to the Linux
desktop, one cannot but feel that might be an exaggeration.

Vendors or no vendors, top down or bottom up, the fact remains that Linux
desktops are fast gaining attention and growing as a veritable force, and it
will potentially sweep the consumer segment. The question is whether its sooner
or later.

As Gandotra puts it, "Comparing proprietary software to Linux is like
comparing a donkey to a rocket. Both of them carry people but the similarity
ends there. The advantages that Linux offers far outweigh the standard right
now. And, slowly or rapidly, Linux will grow to its rightful place."

Sathya Mithra Ashok in Bangalore

A Few Numbers




n According to estimates, there
are close to 3 million PCs sold in India annually.

n Of this close to 30% forms the
home or consumer segment. Around 5% of this 30% would be made up of Linux
desktops.

n Growth rates for the Linux
consumer segment is pegged at anything from 35%-50% depending on which vendor
you speak with.

n As per market estimates,
individual vendors sell anything from 100 to 400 Linux desktops in a month.

n Vendors agree that it is very
difficult to track the number of desktops that get loaded with pirated
proprietary software after sale but peg it at close to 85%.

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