The battle between Microsoft Windows and Linux is raging, with both camps touting the benefits of their respective operating system in the server, desktop and notebook environment. A number of recent developments - including quality, security and architecture enhancements as well as the increased availability of management applications - are helping the open-source movement to get up a head of steam, particularly in the embedded mobile device market.
According to a recent IDC study - Worldwide Open Source Services 2006 Vendor Analysis: The Open Source Services Opportunity - enterprises are looking to improve OS quality and flexibility while reducing costs by deploying open source software.
However, the study warned users to be mindful of the integration, maintenance and support costs associated with open source infrastructure. Gartner analyst, Andy Woo, said top challenges included complexity, a lack of third-party software and high support costs.
Linux is particularly strong in the PDA market and is making headway with mobile phones. In the notebook space, major vendors have begun offering support for Linux but are yet to embrace pre-loaded laptops. Intel has joined Red Hat, Novell, Sun, IBM, HP and others in trying to boost the OS in the market. Lenovo also plans to support Linux on its range of PCs and laptops.
While Linux adoption is on the rise, uptake has slowed recently, according to analysts. Gartner's Woo said not much was happening on the client side locally. He blamed market confusion around business benefits, the inability to define return on investment and a cultural reluctance to change from a Windows environment.
"With Windows Vista coming out, there's even more stacked against Linux," he said. "It's still a niche segment that requires lots of support. But if a customer wants it, most vendors have some sort of Linux strategy."
ThinkPad and ThinkCentre products will offer Linux support, according to Lenovo product manager, David Nicol.
"There are no plans to pre-load it [in Australia] but we provide the support in our ThinkPad, ThinkCentre or Lenovo 3000 machines," he said.
Nicol cited interest in the mid- to high-end corporate and government markets. At the moment, customers were testing Linux-based devices and evaluating them for future use.
"For larger customers, we offer pre-loading of Linux of their choice at the factory. There's a wide range of Linux variants available and they need guidance on which to deploy," he said.
Service and support
Suse, Red Hat, Debian, Wind River and Koan are just some of the flavours of Linux available. Nicol said there was an opportunity for resellers to provide guidance and find out whether it was an appropriate business move for customers. But while there were service and support opportunities, it was a harder market to crack.
Analysts suggested resellers could help determine the Linux compatibility status on notebooks. Manufacturer support is seldom provided and often unhelpful.
Melbourne-based reseller, Remora Technologies, is immersed in the Linux game. It targets opportunities in the mobile and server markets, according to CEO, Robert Silver.
"It's a funny marketplace," he said. "We see a huge uptake of Linux in the server and infrastructure space with Red Hat. Linux laptops are what I'd consider a main sideline business for us."
The best place to look for mobile Linux opportunities, Silver said, was in environments such as call centres that required specialised applications.
"The opportunities are in a locked down environment, which require a specific portable solution," he said. "As an example, look at offering embedded devices like PDAs, which perform specific functions for the transportation and logistics markets."
Remora has had success peddling the Tadpole Computer open source notebook, which Silver said was unique in Australia because it was pre-loaded with Linux. However, the company is pulling out of the Australian market, with Silver suggesting a lack of market focus had contributed to the decision.
New Linux kernel developments will help fuel momentum and open up new opportunities for future advancement. The latest stable version of the Linux kernel - 2.6.17 - includes numerous improvements for users and developers. The most noteworthy change for laptop users is that it now includes built-in driver support for the Broadcom 43xx-based wireless card family found in many models.
Another wireless improvement is support for Cisco's Lightweight Extensible Authentication Protocol (LEAP), making it easier for consumers to use Wi-Fi laptops.
All about apps
Novell applied technology strategist, Paul Kangro, said several developments were laying the foundation for future Linux. He pointed to the Novell-sponsored mono open source project. The initiative provides the necessary software to develop and run .NET client and server applications on Linux, Solaris, Mac OS X, Windows, and Unix.
The project had an active contributing community and was positioned to become a main choice for development of Linux applications, he said.
The creation of the openSuSE build service will also hasten more Linux innovation and development, Kangro said. It is significant many small development houses don't have the equipment to build and test Linux platforms. When complete, it will allow community Linux engineers to create executable packages from community source code that can be installable on Novell's Suse Linux or other Linux distributions.
"This gets the software into user hands more rapidly and makes Linux easier," Kangro said.
He pointed to OpenOffice.org as an alternative for companies that only use a select number of applications, such as Word processing packages. Instead of choosing a total Linux migration, many users are choosing a hybrid Windows/Linux approach now the latest version of OpenOffice.org has extensive file-format compatibility with Microsoft Office.
"The sweet spot where we'll see Linux adopted is where there's no emotional attachment to the desktop," he said.
Remora's Silver said a dual-boot approach was becoming the primary way for users to try Linux. He suggested resellers could help ensure the open source solutions integrated effectively with existing proprietary technology.
Kangro suggested resellers set their sights on the government space, which is an emerging Linux market.
"In government, security and cost issues are of paramount importance. Open source addresses these concerns," he said.
Public sector penguin
Novell recently announced a deal with the NSW Department of Commerce to become an approved supplier of open source software and solutions. It follows its appointment to the NSW government panel of preferred open source suppliers. This is the first panel contract of its kind by an Australian jurisdiction that contains provisions specific to open source software, giving government agencies and departments formal access to Linux solutions.
Pioneer Computers managing director, Jeff Li, has seen growing demand for Linux-based mobile devices within government and education. These users have historically been attracted by lower costs, platform flexibility and greater ease of use.
Citing growth of 10-20 per cent, he put increased demand for Linux laptops down to a need for specialised mobile applications. Last year, Pioneer struck a $4 million deal with the Department of Defence to supply Linux-compatible DreamBook Slim notebooks.
But challenges remain. Inhibitors include the difficulty of changing notebook parts compared to desktops, disk space or CPU speed limitations and a lack of drivers.
"There are so many Linux versions, everyone needs a different driver and we have a big headache," he said.
Novell's Kangro said it recently announced a device driver process which aimed to solve compatibility issues. The new process would help partners by reducing the complexity of enabling new devices between kernel updates.
The process allows customers to obtain drivers independently of Novell kernel updates and supplies an approach third parties can use when developing device drivers for Novell's Suse Linux Enterprise products.
"We saw this as one of the main issues, so we are offering a framework to encourage vendors to create drivers," he said.
Kangro said its forthcoming Suse Linux Enterprise 10 platform, due for release this month, also featured a host of improvements in wireless connectivity and security, as well as boosted USB support.
"It's all out of the box, offering a smoother and easier connection," he said. "It meets the needs of fixed and mobile devices."
Powering up Linux on the Tablet PC was another possibility, although a small one at this point, according to Fujitsu PC Australia technical manager, David Niu.
"We officially support the Windows OS given the stability and the fact it's a complete package, but we will work with partners if Linux is becoming more of a requirement for a tender project," he said.
However, he admitted Linux still suffered from hefty ongoing management costs. At the moment, Linux opportunities lie more with large system integrators that have the expertise to offer support capabilities. But a lack of third-party software applications is the top challenge.
"This will hold back adoption in the desktop and mobile space," Remora's Silver predicted.