When Evans Data released its survey on Tuesday showing a sharp shift toward Linux (and away from Windows) among developers in North America, the Linux world went wild. Wistful pengiun heads heralded the coming Open Source Age. But the real measure of OS success is in the number of users, not the number of developers. After all, most of the world's PCs end up in the hands of ordinary people who have no interest in coding. Fortunately for open-source addicts, there are several signs that the coming year could bring a sea-change among end users, making 2008 the year of the Linux desktop.
There's nothing bold about pointing out that modern Linux distros have made leaps and bounds in usability in the past couple of years. A monkey could download and install Ubuntu Feisty in the time it takes most people to decide which version of Vista to drop a day's pay on. And the recent release of Fedora 7 delivered improvements in wireless support that make mobile configurations nearly idiot-proof. (Although, in my experience, nothing can withstand the sheer brute force of a complete idiot.) Now all eyes are on the upcoming releases of openSUSE 10.3 and Ubuntu 7.10, both of which will drop in October.
Meanwhile, Dell has consistently made headlines with its new Ubuntu-powered PC line. Now four models strong and selling for $50 less than their Windows-equipped counterparts, these PCs come preloaded with all necessary drivers, and offer consumers the same assurances of usability and support that they could reasonably expect from a Windows machine. Whether other major hardware vendors will follow suit remains to be seen, but the momentum is certainly gathering.
Outside of North America, we find even more dramatic signs of a coming shift in the userbase. Just this week, yet another state in India declared that it would no longer buy Windows systems , but would switch to Linux instead, spelling vast potential savings for the government and touting potential benefits to education for the populus. ZDNet Australia quoted the Kerala chief minister, justifying the state's new deal with Red Hat: “We believe that free and open-source software is an essential component in our drive to democratise information technology and bring its benefits to all sections of society.” Of course, the move is about more than democracy. Cost-effectiveness is a major driver. And while the jury is out on the long-term IT cost differences between Linux and Windows, there's no denying that Linux represents a lower outlay in licensing fees.
For end users here in North America, Linux poses a low barrier to entry. While many still balk at an upgrade to Vista (typically centered around cost and restrictive licensing terms), those who are curious about the open-source alternative will find few of these obstacles. And an increasingly rich array of ready-to-run software (not to mention surprisingly effective utilities that let you run many Windows apps) makes it easy switch.
For me, the real hitch in the switch is gaming. While Wine and other Windows compatibility utilities do a great job of running productivity apps, they have less success with the hottest new gaming titles. And as long as Windows retains its utter domination of the PC gaming scene, gamers will always need Windows PCs.
Ultimately, I'm not predicting that Linux will take over the market next year. Or anytime soon, for that matter. But if there's ever been a time to try out the world's leading free OS, 2008 will be that time. I am predicting that users will switch to Linux in record numbers next year. And many will never look back.