Linux around the globe

A perception exists that Linux is quickly catching on everywhere in the world except North America, but recent numbers tell a different story.

Feeding this perception are frequent media reports touting examples of European and Asian Linux developments. In February 2003, for example, Microsoft Corp. slashed prices of its Windows operating system in Taiwan by more than 25 per cent to stave off software piracy and battle the growing popularity of Linux. Earlier this year the city of Munich deployed 14,000 desktop versions of Novell Inc.’s SUSE Linux.

Though countries like Germany get all the attention, that doesn’t mean adoption is not happening in the U.S. or in Canada, said Bill Weinberg, open source architecture specialist with the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) in San Jose, Calif.

One high-profile Canadian deployment involves the City of Calgary, which abandoned its costly Unix infrastructure earlier this year in favour of Linux. Another involves the province of Nova Scotia, which purchased 30,000 Linspire desktop systems, formerly known as Lindows, in November 2003 from (then known as for its Community Access Program, which allows citizens to use these computers for their own needs.

Despite these examples, one industry insider agrees that Canada is slower to adopt Linux.

I don’t think it’s a myth that Linux adoption is further ahead in some parts of the world,” said Chris Pratt, manager, eServer initiative at IBM Canada Corp. in Markham, Ont. Pratt said from what he has seen and read, Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and South America are out-deploying Western Europe and North America (Canada and the U.S.) with Linux. And in North America, the accepted notion is that Canada lingers behind the U.S. in Linux adoption.

But Michael Hagerman, CEO of MAKE Technologies Inc. in Vancouver, says he doesn’t see a difference in adoption rates between the U.S. and Canada, although he does see a difference between North America and Europe.

“We have an arrogance in North America that we are the centre of the universe but we’re behind in mobile technology and Linux,“ he explained. “I absolutely believe the uptake of Linux is greater in Europe and the momentum is greater.”

Opinions vary

Isabelle Bettez, president of 8D Technologies Inc. in Montreal, a company that makes embedded Linux and Java devices for point of sale (POS), said she remembers attending Linux events in Montreal in 1996 where there were many participants. She thinks Linux is widely used in Canada, but is not much talked about.

But IBM’s Pratt concurred with Hagerman — he believes Canada and the U.S. is racing to catch up behind the rest of the world with Linux.

The OSDL’s Weinberg doesn’t agree. “Linux is doing well in Asia but that’s not to say it’s not doing well in North America,” he said.

But on a national level, there is more commitment in other parts of the world.

For example, the governments of China, Korea and Japan have made commitments to Linux through the Asianux movement — a server Linux distribution created by China’s Red Flag Software Co., Ltd. and Japan’s Miracle Linux Cooperation — and have done so for numerous socio-economic reasons, Weinberg said. “Obviously the free software side is very appealing to a developing country like China…and China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan have a big commitment to Linux, not just in the enterprise but in embedded systems.”

In Asia, embedded Linux is proliferating in network equipment like routers, cell phones and multimedia equipment, but some of the work is being done on the behalf of U.S. suppliers, Weinberg added, while some of it is built specifically for the Asian market. “Of course what that means is that devices that are built with Linux are being shipped to the major markets.”

In the U.S. market there are now about 10 Sony television models based on Linux, he said. Additionally, there is going to be a series of handsets debuting in the U.S. next year based on Linux that are already available in Asia, he noted.

“What you tend to see in e-government and IT use in government, Europe gets lots of attention as does South America with adoption of Linux by local governments, municipal governments, even federal governments,” Weinberg said.

In the U.S., the Army, the Defence Intelligence Agency and NASA have all made significant commitments to Linux. Not to mention SELinux, or Security-enhanced Linux — the brainchild of the super-secretive National Security Agency.

Economic pressures

But despite the growing interest of Linux in North America, IBM’s Pratt believes the inherent economic differences between North America and developing nations account for the differences in adoption rates.

“The interesting thing — and this is my theory — is if you plot that adoption curve against the economic pressures of those regions I think you’d see a direct correlation,” Pratt said. “Canada is economically very stable and very strong and we have not felt the same level of financial pressure — now I don’t want to for one moment underestimate the level of pressure we are under — but I think relative to parts of the world it is different.”

Economic pressures in emerging markets in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and South America outweigh those in North America, fuelling people in those regions to seek different solutions, he said. “Technology is cheaper here, it has a shorter life span so consequently we tend to use computing technology less responsibly,” Pratt explained.

Pratt also noted that developing countries are not dealing with a legacy base that countries like Canada and the U.S. have.

The lack of a legacy base lets new technologies make faster inroads into these developing countries. For example, in Africa, cellular adoption rates are higher because in many African markets there are no landlines, thus cellular networks became the de facto infrastructure.

But this doesn’t mean Microsoft’s market will dwindle in the rest of the world or that North America will become Microsoft’s stronghold while the rest of the world abandons it in favour of Linux.

“If we look at regions such as Asia-Pacific, South America, Central America, Eastern Europe, we do see a strong interest in Linux but also we see sales of Windows in those same areas,” said Dan Kusnetzky, vice-president, system software at IDC Ltd. “My sense is that Windows is still enjoying some growth in those regions or it couldn’t have had the growth we saw in the worldwide market.”

Linux growing in Windows’ shadow

In 2003 about 23 per cent of server operating systems shipped worldwide were Linux, said Dan Kusnetzky, a vice-president with IDC. Windows held about 56 per cent of the market share, Unix just under 13 per cent and mainframes, OS/400 and other operating systems about 15 per cent. Additionally, Microsoft’s market share is fairly constant throughout the world, showing few spikes or dips, Kusnetzky added. Linux’s market share increased 6.8 per cent, Windows increased 15.1 per cent, Unix dropped five per cent while mainframe, OS/400 and other operating systems declined 10 per cent.

In 2002, Linux’s market share grew 8.3 per cent, Windows grew 14.8 per cent, Unix decreased by 7.1 per cent, while the mainframe, OS/400 and other operating systems market declined 23 per cent.

“This is what you would expect from an operating environment as it becomes a mature player — the growth rate declines but that’s also reflective of the install base getting larger. It gets harder and harder to demonstrate that kind of extreme growth,” Kusnetzky said. “When we first started watching Linux we saw growth rates of 200 per cent in some years and then it dropped down to 70 [per cent] and now it’s in its low-teens (or lower), which is consistent with a maturing market.”

Apples and oranges

“I think it’s too easy to want to see Linux as opposite or counter to Microsoft,” said Chris Pratt, manager, eServer initiative at IBM Canada Corp. in Markham, Ont. If you look at Linux and the open source community, it is an inclusive culture. Many proprietary vendors are very active in the open source arena and by definition we are excluded, and Linux, in purist terms competes with every other operating system that exists because it runs on every platform.”

Even Microsoft has contributed code to the open source projects but not its Windows code, which is a tightly guarded secret. However, Microsoft does allow governments (countries such as the U.K. and China have taken advantage of this) to view Windows source code under controlled circumstances.

Regardless, Microsoft won’t disappear because there’s always space for multiple operating systems in most IT environments — and customers make their choices based upon a business cases not allegiances.

The hot topic of politics aside, Dan Kusnetzky, a vice-president at IDC, said it is unlikely Microsoft will ever lose its market share in or outside Canada and the U.S. Many of the application providers are strongly considering Linux, or have pilot projects of their offerings on the platform. So as support for Linux increases, users would have more leeway to choose the open source operating system, he said. But the application vendors are hardly abandoning Microsoft.

“I think maybe in low-level software we’re seeing a great deal of interest in Linux,” he said. “However, it depends how you look at the market whether the theory that Canada/U.S. and the rest of the world could be divided upon Microsoft/Linux lines.

The starkest differences might arise when a single operating system is chosen by an enterprise. But increasingly that concept is challenged because servers now support portioning — allowing them to run multiple operating systems. IBM Corp. has been supporting such a framework since the 1960s, Kusnetzky noted, but this portioning is generally new to Intel and Intel-compatible architectures.

The use of virtual machine software can let multiple operating systems run on a single piece of hardware simultaneously. As a result, Windows and Linux will have to learn to co-exist, possibly running on the same server.

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