All the recent activity associated with Linux got me thinking that this might be the tipping point for Linux desktop adoption. There is no doubt that people have been talking about Linux being ready for the desktop even as early as the beginning of this decade. We keep hearing stories that the time has come and yet, the time never comes.

Look at the signs though. For the first time, I can honestly say that Linux can serve as a viable alternative, and in certain cases, even a much better alternative, to other mainstream operating systems. There are some things still lacking, notably multimedia codec support and the lack of games, but everything else is covered quite well. Gaming is important, but not a something that is necessarily a barrier to adoption. There are plenty of gamers who would not switch from Windows to Linux because of the lack of games, but that is not a majority of computer users. Mac OS would not have seen such an increase in adoption if gaming were an issue. As far as multimedia codec support is concerned, there are viable options such as Linspire that ships with full codec support and Fluendo, which provides a codec pack for Linux. Free software purists balk at the idea of proprietary codecs. In my opinion, the way things stand right now, it is not possible to have both at the same time — a pure open-source distribution and widespread adoption. The beauty of the Linux world is that you still have the choice. No one is forcing you to use proprietary codecs.

All new technology goes through the cycle of being adopted by the early adopters and then moving on to the mainstream users by word of mouth and by proof of viability. Until now, Linux has been used by die-hard enthusiasts who were either frustrated or just bored by Windows (Note that I’m not talking about the corporate world and server adoption — that’s an entirely different story). Now, Linux has become an important part of the tech media such as ZDNet or C|Net. There are increasingly frequent reviews of new versions of Linux distros and issues such as the patent challenges being raised by Microsoft. What’s more, most of the mainstream tech media seems to be quite positive about Linux and sympathetic with the Linux community in its fight against Microsoft and other challengers of open source. One can argue that just because PC Magazine takes a notice of Linux does not mean that the average user will even know what Linux is. Tech media serves a niche after all. This is true to some extent, but I believe that it is definitely a sign that things are changing, and they are changing more rapidly than before.

Take the case of Dell, for example. For years, the Linux community has been imploring Dell to sell pre-installed Linux machines but Dell has ignored Linux desktops because of the low demand, and perhaps more so because of Microsoft’s strong arm tactics. Now, however, Dell faces harsher competition from other hardware vendors such as HP and Lenovo. Also, Microsoft no longer has the power to dictate terms because it could easily get into anti-trust lawsuits again. Last week, Dell started offering pre-installed Linux laptops and desktops, a move that has been widely applauded by the media and of course, by the Linux community. Linux-based computers will form a minute part of Dell’s sale to begin with, but the fact that Dell has actually taken this step is an indication that things are changing. For a company the size of Dell, it is a non-trivial task to introduce another OS offering — the cost of training, engineering and inventory management could be quite big. The fact that Dell is able to do it and that too at a lower price point than its Windows-based systems shows that this is not a half-hearted effort, but a genuine attempt to innovate on Dell’s part. Whether Dell succeeds remains to be seen. I am of course wishing and hoping that it will, and Dell will also set an example for other big vendors to follow.

There is another aspect to Dell’s move — hardware support. Until now, it has been very hard for the Linux community to get support from hardware vendors. It’s a Catch 22 situation because the hardware vendors are unwilling to support Linux because of the low demand and the demand has been limited because of the lack of hardware support. If Dell’s Linux initiative takes off, it could mean that hardware vendors will be forced to provide proper Linux support for their hardware which will of course help in Linux adoption.

One more reason that makes me believe that  Linux desktop is about to happen is the level of innovation.  Until now, Linux has been playing catchup to other OSs, trying to implement features that are already available. Now, however, Linux can safely claim to offer a better value than other OSs in at least some areas. The desktop effects is one example and the integrated software update system is another.  As the level of innovation increases, Linux will not only offer an advantage from the price perspective, which is huge in itself, but it will also be able to gain users based on its features.