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The Possible Futures of the Linux Desktop

IBM's Bob Sutor speaks at LinuxCon
IBM's Bob Sutor speaks at LinuxCon

What is the future of the Linux desktop? According to Bob Sutor, vice president of open source and Linux at IBM (NYSE: IBM), it's not about dominating the desktop landscape or being a drop-in replacement for Microsoft Windows.

In fact, during his keynote at the LinuxCon conference today, Sutor said he doesn't think it likely that Linux will ever dominate the desktop space.

That might seem counterintuitive, considering that IBM has been backing a Linux desktop for several years and recently announced a joint effort with Ubuntu for a Microsoft-Free PC. IBM is also taking on the Microsoft desktop with its office suite, Lotus Symphony, which used the Open Document Format standard and is able to run on Linux desktops.

But Sutor added that the route to victory for Linux on the desktop is not about trying to replace the incumbent Microsoft desktop.

"I think trying to make it a complete drop-in replacement is a dead-end strategy," Sutor said. "They've got a little bit more money, and even more important than that is they've got the market share and the mind share."

Instead, Sutor said he sees Linux's impact on the desktop being measured differently than its role in the cloud and in virtualization -- where he sees Linux truly dominating.

"If Linux got into the double digits [for market penetration] across a broad range of people, that would be the time to claim victory, rather than waiting for world domination," Sutor said.

In Sutor's view, the Linux desktop doesn't need to be thought of as one great desktop for everyone. Rather, it needs to find its niche, as determined by what the Linux desktop does really well at particular price points for specific market segments.

"What do we do in the future? We focus on usability, stability, security, reliability and performance with some cool thrown in, too," Sutor said. "We make it work, just like you all have done in the enterprise space and servers -- it works. And we bring that focus, that attention to what lives on the desktop as well, with the cool."

Vanishing Linux?

During his talk, Sutor also described how he sees the Linux desktop evolving even farther in the future -- or how it might disappear entirely.

[cob:Special_Report]In one possible scenario, the Linux desktop simply goes away, but he noted that he didn't see this as being likely. Another is one in which the desktop itself no longer matters -- with virtualization and remotely hosted desktops changing the definition of the desktop from being a local PC as to being something that exists only in the cloud.

But even if the desktop concept shifts, Linux will still be critical, Sutor said, describing the various ways Linux now plays a key role in IBM's commercial efforts and its own infrastructure.

"Linux is absolutely at the center -- it's at the center of how the way we think about these problems," Sutor said. "Yes, we will use other operating systems, but as we think about the new areas of business that we are going into, Linux is very much at the center."

"Whether we're talking about mainframes, the future of the desktop and the cloud, Linux needs to and will be a major component of that."