Ask someone familiar with computers to suggest where the Microsoft Windows operating system will be in one year and, more than likely, you will hear about Vista, the newest iteration, or about enhancements to XP, the current version. Ask someone familiar with the Linux operating system to answer that same question and it's likely you will be asked which OS you mean.
Linux, an open-source OS kernel developed by Linus Torvalds in 1991, currently claims 15 or more popular variations or distributions, according to Linuxiso.org, a site that offers Linux distributions for downloading.
While Windows has several versions used by millions of enterprises and consumers, these software packages are not the same thing as Linux distributions. For instance, Windows XP, Windows XP Professional, and Windows XP Media Center all share the same interface and are controlled by one developer. Not so with Linux.
This lack of uniformity complicates any forecast of where Linux is headed. But where some experts see uncertainty, others point to a growing acceptance of Linux for server applications and enterprise support.
"Linux has been limited to the edge of the network for tasks like Web servers," said Simon Yates, principal analyst at Forrester Research. "But now we are seeing it gain stature and become part of the server network."
According to a just-released report from research firm IDC, Linux servers generated $1.6 billion in revenue for the last quarter of 2005, the fourteenth consecutive quarter of double-digit growth, with year-over-year revenue growth of 20.8 percent. For the full year, Linux server revenue was $5.7 billion, rising to third place behind Windows and Unix.
Yates said that the newest Linux kernel -- the latest stable distribution of which is version 220.127.116.11, according to the Linux Kernel Archives (www.kernel.org) -- is a good operating system for mission-critical tasks throughout an enterprise. He also said that many of the lingering corporate fears about Linux are fading.
Some aficionados say the latest Novell Linux distribution could jump-start a surge in popularity for Linux among businesses. "Linux will start to become more popular in the corporate world because of the latest Novell Linux distribution," said Edward Corrado, leader of the Princeton, New Jersey, Linux User Group. "Novell has name recognition and is much more durable and stable than the other distributions."
One of the major misconceptions about Linux, according to Corrado, is the notion that it is more difficult to set up and learn than Microsoft Windows. Nothing could be further from the truth, he said.
"Linux in the workplace is no more difficult to learn than switching skills from an Apple computer to a Windows machine," he said. "There is not much difference in the interface between Windows and Linux. For a new user, Linux is just as easy, if not easier."
A close cousin to Unix, which for years has been a strong choice for running servers, Linux has the look and feel of Microsoft Windows without the higher licensing costs and overhead caused by design vulnerabilities, at least according advocates of the operating system.
Corporate interest in Linux is growing beyond server functions, Yates said, citing surveys that Forrester conducts with hundreds of major companies.
One recent survey reported that 88 percent of companies in the U.S. are using Microsoft Windows, while 22 percent are running Linux applications for some tasks. But Yates noted that a significant number of respondents, 68 percent, said they would consider fitting Linux into their operations.
This year also could see a push for Linux in corporate work rooms. Major application upgrades will take place this year, giving Linux a good growth potential for companies looking for alternatives to Windows. For instance, 59 percent of U.S. companies, out of 860 surveyed by Forrester, will schedule server- and network-equipment upgrades this year. Forty-nine percent of European companies surveyed will face upgrades. And about half of the firms Forrester surveyed in the Asia-Pacific region are planning to upgrade equipment this year.
"This will open the door for Linux-based applications," said Yates. "The larger server systems can now run Linux."
Infrastructure consolidation is not the only force that could propel Linux's popularity. Many companies will have to replace legacy systems this year. According to Yates, about 15 percent of large enterprises are planning to replace their older PCs.
"These are all good places for Linux to grow," he said. "Companies are cutting back on proprietary flavors of Unix systems that are tied to manufacturer-specific architectures, like Hewlett-Packard."
One the biggest stumbling blocks to the adoption of Linux is the lack of software specifically designed to run on the operating system, Corrado said. Until software developers port over popular business applications or develop Linux-specific products, greater user support for Linux will be hindered, he said.
"Certain applications are too big to write quickly," said Corrado. "In other cases, businesses will not readily switch to another application to run on Linux if they are happy with the current software's performance."
Performing typical business-oriented tasks in Linux would pose a major problem for corporations. That problem is twofold, according to Corrado.
First, the software developers would need an incentive to develop software products for a crossover market. Second, even if and when key applications became available on Linux, many business users would not switch operating systems if their current versions were not ported over to run on Linux directly.
"The chances for Linux to become a desktop operating-system replacement are very small," Yates said. "Users have no reason to leave Windows, either in the office or the home."
Twice a year, Forrester analysts assess enterprise views on computing in the workplace, conducting a survey of 8,000 firms to spot trends. So far, the results have shown that no more than 0.2 percent of all companies use Linux on their desktop computers.
And where Linux is in use, Forrester has found, the migration is justified by one of two reasons. Either the company's executives are leveraging the lowest equipment cost possible or the company is fostering a hi-tech geek mentality.
Hasta La Vista, Baby
Yates said that when Microsoft releases Vista later this year, businesses will have the first opportunity in a long time to consider an operating system alternative. Some companies might use the prospect of a major Windows upgrade as a chance to change their OS.
"The release of Vista will be a fork in the road," Yates said.
Of course, a successful push from Windows to Linux would need a tremendous amount of support from the Linux community, similar to the buzz that the Mozilla.org supporters were able to generate for Firefox as an alternative to Microsoft's Internet Explorer. The Linux empire would have to generate a full-court press to entice business users and, ultimately, consumers to participate in a new game.
While there is no compelling urgency to migrate from Windows to Linux to run desktops just yet, Corrado said, the computing landscape will be different in five years. By then, he said, a Linux user base will develop within corporations already using Linux servers. When people start using Linux at work, they also will use it at home for convenience and consistency, he said.
"People who use Novell on Linux really like it. We are starting to see acceptance of this combination in corporate circles," Corrado said. "Its acceptance will be slow in the next year. But in five years, there will be a much stronger user base of Linux on the desktop."
Corrado is confident that, regardless of Linux's prospects in the desktop environment, Linux will continue to displace Windows as a server operating system over the next few years.
"Linux will get a greater share of the corporate user base and more government agencies and schools," he said. "We are already starting to see migration to Linux on college campuses."
Looking to the future, it might be only a matter of time before more and more converts give Linux stellar marks.