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Are Google and Amazon the Next Great Hope for the (Linux) Desktop?

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By Mark Hinkle

There was a time when I thought the Linux desktop was going to take a market share at least equal to Apple's. Maybe even 5% or 10% of the total desktop market. I had high hopes that the One Laptop Per Child Initiative would put Linux laptops in the hands of impressionable young minds who would never have the chance to become dependent on Windows. Though that plan has fallen through the cracks. I don't hate Microsoft Windows I just don't have a desire to see any operating system dominate the market in such a way that the lack of competition stifles innovation and forces users into an endless upgrade cycle, offering progressively smaller incremental value.

GamazonThat's why I like Linux as a desktop platform. For many years I was an advocate for using the Linux desktop, I even wrote a Windows to Linux migration book for business users. Though the time has yet to come for the widespread Linux desktop adoption. I have speculated in the past that Novell's SUSE Linux Desktop or Ubuntu would see traction but as of late I think that even that prediction is off base. I think the companies that will break our addiction to Windows will not be neither of them. It will be Google and Amazon. Here's why.

I think that real reason people become dependent on Windows isn't the operating system, it's not the great support from Microsoft's 800 support number. It's applications and hardware support. As an independent software vendor (ISV) there's not a great incentive to develop to any other operating system when you consider the 90%+ of all PC users are using Windows. For a while I was convinced that the intermediary step for desktop independence was going to be virtualization e.g. run two OSes side-by-side. Recently Citrix announced a new desktop virtualization product, XenDesktop that does just this. Though recently my opinion has evolved. I think what will happen is that most users will skip this step and go right to the network for browser-hosted applications.

Google Docs GadgetsThe reason I think a web-centric is going to be the norm is due to the size of the market. As you look at the size of the potential users( buyers) the next generation of information workers will likely become dependent on web applications like Google Docs and less so on Microsoft Office. The market for browser based applications will be the greatest and vendors will be able to develop to W3C standards and not that of individual OS vendors. At that point the desktop operating systems becomes more of a conduit to your applications and less of an end unto itself, at that point we achieve desktop independence.

Case in point, my company recently shifted to Google Docs as our document collaboration platform. Initially we used Google Docs to author simple documents or to upload a document originally authored in Word. Today I noticed that my Google Docs had a link called, Insert Plugin. It gave me options of things I could insert into Google Docs. When Google bought Writely(the product that formed the basis for Google Doc) it was very slick but only offered rudimentary features. Google has since continued to add features and now they are even crowd-sourcing the addition of more features through the plugin exchange. Couple this with a ever-improving GMail application and the dependence on Office is nullified. Though maybe we are just trading one master or another.

Google is only one of many web applications that are slowly replacing my native applications. For photo editing I find myself uploading pictures to Flickr and editing them in Picnik rather than editing them on my desktop. To-do lists and projects are managed in a hosted task-manager application (Tasks). I could go on. The bottom line is that with each new web-application I am reducing my dependence on any one vendor. The downside is that until that data is portable I am locked in to some extent to those applications, but not one vendor who owns my desktop and productivity suite.

Web applications are going to proliferate. Amazon's EC2 brings the barrier to entry for deploying scalable web applications (and companies) so low that you don't need Google's billions to develop and grow a scalable redundant architecture. Amazon and cloud computing are changing the rules for building and hosting infrastructure. This is good for the end-user as choice and competition keeps innovation high and prices low.

Beyond applications Ihave been playing around with file storage via Amazon's EC3 this too is one step towards desktop independence. The economics for storing files has been broken down to bandwidth and cheap per gigabyte storage. You only pay for what you use. There are also intermediaries for these services like, JungleDisk which provides software and value-added services in addition to EC3. This combination now frees my data along with my applications.

The Linux Desktop Opportunity

This opportunity is the same for Linux as it is for Mac. If you are no longer dependent on your desktop operating system for tight application integration you have a lot more freedom in your desktop platform. That opens the door for Linux. Frankly, I use an Apple OS X desktop (which supports my EVDO card) for my work laptop but much of the time I prefer the quick response of my Ubuntu operating system running on a Dell laptop which costs about one-third of the what my Mac Book Pro does. With a little tweaking and growing hardware support (for me it's support for my Verizon EVDO card) I see Linux desktops like the AsusEEE being a good alternative to one running Windows. If all your apps are in the network it's likely you could use inexpensive desktop computers at work running Linux and ultra-mobile PCs on the road. I don't expect a massive migration to Linux or Mac from Windows. I just envision a opportunity for a greater and more realistic number of choices for desktop computing.

And who do we have to thank... Gamazon?

For more Mark Hinkle, visit his Socialized Software blog.

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