March 31, 1999 3:40 PM PST

Linux on the fast track

Over the next five years, Linux will grow faster than all other operating systems combined, according to a new study.

On the strength of support from such major players as IBM, Intel and Compaq Computer, Linux is emerging as a major factor in the server operating system market, moving beyond its core "ABM"--Anything But Microsoft--market, said Dan Kusnetzky, an International Data Corporation analyst.

"Linux has done fairly well on the server side, but doesn't have the same penetration on the client," said Kusnetzky. IDC today released its projections for the operating system market over the next five years, including Linux as a separate category for the first time.

Linux shipments will grow 25 percent over the next five years, compared to 12 percent growth for all server operating systems and 10 percent growth for all client operating systems, IDC reports. Linux is growing at a rate of 23 percent per year, bringing it to the No. 2 position behind Microsoft's Windows NT by 2003, Kusnetzky said.

IDC only measured commercial Linux shipments, Kusnetzky said, so the actual figure for Linux's growth will invariably be larger. Linux, a variant of the Unix operating system, is available for free download off the Internet. Packaged commercial versions of the open source operating system can also be purchased from such companies as Red Hat and Caldera.

Still, Linux is nowhere near dominating the market: Currently, Windows NT accounts for 38.6 percent of the server software market, with Linux's market share hovering just over 17 percent, according to IDC.

But Linux's appeal as a low cost server option for computing intensive industries like content and multimedia creation is expected to grow over the next five years, while it will continue to do well in its historical strongholds like academic, research, scientific, and engineering computing.

A Linux drawback on the server side is the high level of expertise needed to work with the platform, Kusnetzky said. "The level of expertise needed is very high, the installation process is not simple, nor is getting it to recognize all the devices, because obscure devices don't have Linux drivers," he said, adding: "This is all being worked on."

To gain widespread acceptance in the desktop PC market, Linux will have to overcome several obstacles. Consumers purchase PCs based on the breadth of applications available, Kusnetzky noted, and Linux does not yet support many of the most popular desktop applications, such as the Microsoft Office suite.

"Most users buy a platform because they have to, not because they want to. They have a list of applications they wish to use, and select the platform those applications are available for," he said. "We believe that this is one of the major impediments to the growth of Linux as a client operating system."

Although Microsoft's non-support of Linux is an obstacle, Kusnetzky noted that several companies are working on more user-friendly interfaces for the platform, as well as new Linux office suites. "There's not a single thing on the impediments list that isn't being addressed by one company or another," he said. "The Linux community knows the weaknesses of their products and are working very hard to address all of the concerns."

Additionally, Linux may have appeal as a client operating system in medical and vertical markets that do not use office suite applications, he said. "Nobody knows or cares what the operating system is under the database, as long as the software responds."

 

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