Open Source

Desktop *nix and what $50 gets you

What are you really getting when you plunk down $50 per year for either Novell Linux Desktop or Sun's Java Desktop System? Hint: It's not about the operating system.

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By David Berlind
ZDNet News

COMMENTARY — When news first surfaced that Novell would be releasing its Novell Linux Desktop (NLD, based on SuSE Linux) ahead of schedule, discussion threads and blogs were all agog (or is that "ablog"). As far as I can tell, there are two basic themes to most threads. First, what does NLD mean for Windows? Second, what does it mean to other Linux desktops? I plan to answer both questions.

But, let me start by saying that, although I'd like to, I have not tried Sun's Linux-based Java Desktop System (JDS), nor have I used NLD. If I were to lay my hands on a copy of JDS, my preference would be to try the Solaris version instead of the Unix version just to prove a point (more on that in a moment). Unfortunately, the Solaris-based version is only certified to run on Sun's own wickedly expensive AMD-based hardware that the company is not making available to reviewers. Chances are you'll have better luck if you're a customer who's serious about switching some large contingent of users to JDS. Even though it's a good idea to try JDS and NLD to get a feel for what they can do, you don't have to in order to arrive at the following conclusions.

When software delivers a specific utility, that utility or "layer of value" is often referred to as "the contract." Like a real contract, a software contract sets the expectations of the external entities that will interface with the software. Those entities can be other systems or software, or they can be humans. If software interacts primarily with other software to deliver its value, the contract is at the application programming interface level where software (applications or operating systems) can issue or receive instructions from other software. If software interacts with users, then the rubber meets the road at the user-interface level where users feed something in and get something out in whatever format they want it (think documents and communications like instant messaging).

In the case of desktop Linux, the contract is in the user interface (which includes the applications). After all, a lot of the attraction to desktop Linux is due to the fact that it does things out of the box that Windows does not. For example, there's no need to run out and buy a productivity suite or install an instant messaging client. Most distributions of desktop Linux include fairly robust software for each. This model is remarkably similar to that of PDAs. As with PocketPC or PalmOS-based devices, the targeted users of JDS, NLD, and whatever Red Hat comes up with next will mostly interact with the applications and not with the operating system, which in turn reduces the OS to a mostly embedded and, not coincidentally, rather trivial commodity status.

Need evidence?

Look at the contract layers of the offerings from Sun and Novell. For almost the exact same amount of money — $50 per year — they deliver almost exactly the same core contract: the Web (Mozilla), a productivity suite (StarOffice or OpenOffice), and e-mail and scheduling (Novell's Ximian Evolution) . What makes JDS interesting, and further drives home the embedded/commodity point, is that JDS delivers precisely the same contract for the same price on its version of Unix (Solaris) as well. This drives the Linux faithful crazy because it makes Sun look like it's vacillating on its Linux strategy — a myth that many perpetuate — when it's not. Has Linux taken its toll on Sun? Sure. But, on the desktop, Sun is simply delivering a contract for $50. Take your pick — Solaris or Linux. Although Sun hopes you'll be pleasantly surprised by the Solaris version, Sun really doesn't care which one you pick and the message is, neither should you. What makes these offerings both interesting and useful is definitely not the OS.

Keep in mind that we're talking about $50 here. If you're determined to split hairs over what $50 gets you, you will no doubt be able to unearth some differences beyond what JDS' StarOffice gets you over NLD's OpenOffice, particularly in how both companies make management of their desktop offerings possible.

Such hair-splitting aside, the theme that many seem to have more fun with is what Novell's introduction of NLD means to "those evil people in Redmond." Almost universally, the discussion is about how the NLD release is proof-positive that desktop Linux means business. But, let's be honest. In NLD's case, desktop Linux is merely the messenger. So, you'll have to excuse me, but I'm going to shoot the messenger. The question isn't about what desktop Linux will do to Windows. It's about what a $50-per-seat business productivity contract — which, in addition to JDS, Novell has helped to legitimize in introducing NLD — will do to Microsoft. Forget what's under the hood. If a solution delivers productivity reliably and securely, if it's manageable, if it costs less than $100 a seat (even on an annual subscription basis), and if Novell, Sun, and others (for example, IBM, which just launched a sub-$100 express version of its Lotus Workplace client productivity offering) end up in blood bath to prove who can do a better job delivering that contract and there's nuclear desktop fallout, then the majority of that fallout will be felt where there's something to lose and that's Redmond — particularly if Microsoft doesn't respond.

But those are a lot of "ifs." Anybody who thinks that Microsoft is just going to lie down and die as a result of this revolution in what $50 gets you is dreaming. If Novell, Sun, or any other company can turn a profit off of a $50 soup-to-nuts desktop offering, there's no reason Microsoft can't do it, too. It's just that the result may not be Windows and Office as we know them in their entirety. For example, Microsoft already has plans to offer a $36 Windows XP Starter Kit in India and will be offering copies of Office to certain schools at $2.50 per copy.

Furthermore, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is now talking about the idea of the $100 PC. So, clearly Ballmer and Microsoft are thinking about bringing down the cost of software, since a $100 PC that requires $300 worth of software is simply inconceivable. So, too, is the idea of buying a $2,815 computer that only requires $50 of software to make it work (which is what you get if you pay Sun $50 per year to run JDS/Solaris on an AMD box that you buy at retail on eBay).

Devotees of Linux will be the first ones to point out that the pressure to bring the cost of Windows PCs down to $100 is a direct result of Linux. But Ballmer disagrees and, right now, so do I. According to Ballmer, "There's no appreciable amount of Linux on client systems anywhere in the world." This is absolutely true. Although there are some success stories for desktop Linux, such as with certain governments, these are very few and far between.

If the price of Windows and Office comes down, it won't be simply because of Linux. Nor will it be simply because impoverished Asians need it, as Ballmer is asserting. The price will come down because a handful of companies are redefining what $50 (or even less) gets you — whether it's Linux-based, Solaris-based, or even Internet-based like IBM's Workplace, or some other form of a utility computing-like, subscription-priced thin client (e.g.: Sun's recently announced Sun Ray initiative or whatever Google comes up with) that delivers on the basic requirements for most knowledge workers. It will be because, among all of these and other market forces, $50 is about what the market will bear.

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