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The recently reported decision by the German city of Munich to revisit its city-wide deployment of Linux on the desktop may bring the long-running "religious wars" over the desktop operating system to a close.

Fragmentation is the enemy of market share

For those that are relatively new to the government technology market, it's difficult to imagine the passion that was involved in the efforts to persuade governments to proactively support the use of open source software, notably Linux, in the early 21st century.

The dominance of Microsoft over the desktop operating system, through the various iterations of Windows, was seen by many as exploitation of a monopoly market position, restricting competition and reducing the opportunities for other systems to flourish. A number of high-profile antitrust cases, especially in Europe, contributed to a view that governments should be proactive in opposing such perceived hegemony.

When the City of Munich decided in 2004 to deploy a specific version of Linux across its thousands of public service desktops, it was heralded as a "brave new world" by those advocating for open source everywhere. In the 12 years since the decision, it has become obvious that situation has not eventuated. So, what happened?

A key driver of large enterprise desktop deployments, in government or anywhere else, is standardization, both within the agency and with its stakeholders. While the technically literate may wish to "tinker" with their IT, the majority of public servants don't, and even if they do, their managers don't want them too. Over and above a limited personal customization of colors and their favorite cat photo, the ability to change everything is often a negative capability.

Leaving aside the major improvements that Microsoft made in the security and stability of Windows over that decade, there were always multiple versions of the Linux desktop on offer. Simply choosing which one to use, then configuring it and ensuring all the supporting components were in place, was too hard of a decision for most organizations. The easier, and safer, choice remains to opt for what everyone else is using.

Windows won a battle of decreasing relevance

There will remain a core group of advocates, some might call them zealots, who will continue to predict the imminent arrival of a ubiquitous Linux desktop, but the decision in Munich indicates how unlikely that has become.

The irony is that while one could argue that Windows has "won" the desktop OS wars, that is considerably less relevant than it was in 2004.

Server farms around the world are stacked to the brim with Linux-based servers, which have become so pervasive that Microsoft supports Linux virtual machines (VMs) running on its own Azure cloud offering, while major business-critical solutions from all the major vendors are routinely deployed on Linux. In the technical world of the data center, the ability to endlessly tune and customize is a virtue, not a curse.

Similarly, despite the importance of Apple's iOS in changing the end-user expectations of the mobile experience, Android, a version of Linux, is "winning" in the mobile device space from a pure numbers viewpoint.

Perhaps the strongest indication of the changed importance of the traditional desktop computer is the low level of controversy attracted by the reversal in 2017, when compared to the original decision in 2004.


Further reading

"'Consumer-grade' is the new black," IT0007-000886 (May 2016)


Al Blake, Principal Analyst, Public Sector.

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