Marketing the Desktop OS

by Paul Rubens

OS Roundup: Is the key to desktop OS success tied to its server connection? That would explain Apple's and Window's success -- and Linux's many false starts.

Paul Rubens
Coca-cola is the official soft drink of the Olympic games. Which means what, exactly? That Coke tastes better than any other drink when you watch the Olympics? That athletes drink Coke? I don't think so.

I'm sure that you don't need me to tell you that it doesn't mean anything at all — it's just marketing bullocks of the highest order, designed to encourage people to buy more Coke. And presumably it works — Coca-cola and the Olympic Movement have been in partnership since 1928, and both are doing very nicely indeed. Sugar water and an international festival of sport are two quite different things, but thanks to some fancy marketing the two are linked. Things — including the Olympics — go better with Coke.

OK. Bear with me. Let's scoot over to the world of enterprise operating systems now. In the enterprise server room you're likely to find machines running one or a combination of UNIX, Linux, Windows or, conceivably, OS X. And on the desktop you'll probably find Windows, or possibly OS X or Linux. UNIX is an exception, in that it's not an OS intended for use by Joe Average end user, so we'll ignore it for now.

Enterprise Unix Roundup

But here's a question: How can the makers of Linux, OS X and Windows leverage their presence in the server room to increase revenue from the desktop, or the other way around? And, in case you haven't guessed, the Olympics and Coke are clues.

If we take a look at Apple, we'll see it has had much success in the enterprise but it has not done a great job of pushing the whole Apple idea. It's a good bet that the vast majority of the few organizations that have Apple servers in their server room do so because employees have Macs on their desktops. If you're a Mac shop it's the easiest, and most sensible option. Apple's marketing underlies everything that it does, and if you buy in to the idea of Mac desktops, you can be sure you'll get the same benefits with an Apple server.

What about Windows then? It's certainly the case that most organizations have Windows desktops, but not all the servers are Windows servers. Linux — for example — plays very nicely with Windows desktops, and there are plenty of reasons to have back-end servers running Linux. So it's no surprise Microsoft is now making a concerted effort to push Windows 7 as the "official desktop operating system" of the upcoming Windows Server 2008 R2.

Microsoft's "Better Together" slogan for Server 2008 R2 highlights a number of features for its server OS that work only with Windows 7 clients. These include Microsoft's DirectAccess remote connectivity, the branch office data caching feature called BranchCache, and improved centrally managed power management. In fact it doesn't really matter what the features are — the point is that there's a story to tell. If you've got Windows 7 you should get Windows Server 2008 R2, and vice versa.

So that leaves Linux. And Linux is the only OS that is asymmetric in its adoption. Which is just a fancy way of saying that while organizations that have Mac servers have Mac desktop machines, and while anywhere with a Windows server almost certainly uses Windows clients, plenty of companies with Linux machines in the server room or data center don't use Linux on the desktop. As we know, hardly anyone uses Linux desktops in the enterprise.

Why this is so has been discussed many times in this column and elsewhere. A more interesting question is why isn't more being done to change this? Can you provide a good reason why you should use Linux desktops if you are using Linux servers?

Red Hat, SUSE and Ubuntu can't. This is what their web sites say about their desktop offerings:

  • SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 11- Cost effective, interoperable with Windows, market leading usability, bullet-proof security, green IT friendly, easy to manage, preloaded by partners, enterprise supported
  • Ubuntu- Save time and boot faster, get productive with the latest apps, enjoy an improved user experience
  • Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 Desktop- attractive, highly productive alternative for client systems like desktop and laptop computers, an environment that sets the standard for client operating systems in the focused areas of security and management

Plenty of features and benefits, but not a single reason why users of their server software specifically should be interested in their desktops.

If desktop Linux makers really want to succeed in the enterprise, perhaps the answer is not to make them Windows clones. This strategy doesn't seem to be working. Perhaps the answer is to leverage the success of Linux in the server room and supply compelling reasons for using Linux desktop software to go with it. Perhaps what's needed is — dare I say it — to take a page out of Microsoft's book, and for Linux makers to start a Better Together campaign of their own.

If they can come up with something that is more than mere marketing bullocks, who knows? Maybe we'd finally see some significant adoption of Linux on the desktop.

Paul Rubens is an IT consultant and journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

This article was originally published on Tuesday May 19th 2009
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