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The coming Linux desktop?

I’ve gotten a number of questions in the last few weeks about Linux desktops and OpenOffice.   These have come from enterprise users, the press and venture capitalists.  It’s interesting, because this seems to be a meme that is revived every few years.   I was really enthused about the possibility of an Open Source desktop rival to Microsoft’s offering several years ago, but there never seemed to be much traction.   Clients of mine that seriously looked at Open Source rivals to MS Office did so to negotiate better pricing from MSFT as much as anything else, no one actually migrated to it.   Oh, sure there were some high profile attempts (like the city of Munich) and at least one Army command migrated to OpenOffice, but it did not really catch on as I expected.

This largely caused me to examine why there was no widespread adoption and what might eventually drive adoption.   What I found is that feature/functionality parity in the office suite is just one part of the equation and probably a small one at that.  The reality around migration is that it’s much more complex than the Open Source community assumes and it’s not just a technical problem.  The depth of this issue only begins with deploying a new office suite.   You then have to train people, provide tech support and tie this new suite into the rest of your systems.   If you are an SMB or a consumer, chances are you are using off-the-shelf versions of MS Office and this might not be too painful.   But if you are an enterprise (say, Ford Europe with 15,000 desktops) then you are probably not using generic MS Office and these issues take on a whole new dimension.   One client of ours has tens of thousands of desktops deployed where MS Word has been scripted to enable customized correspondence with clients, all while controlling the content.  What would it take to port that?  

And that’s just the thin end of the wedge.   When you look at other issues, like having IT staff that’s trained to support both OpenOffice and MS Office, or issues dealing with common authentication, then the problem set becomes logarithmic.   Good businesses will do ROI calculations on this and the picture does not look good from that standpoint.   If you look at Ford Europe, for example (I’m just picking on them, I don’t have any special knowledge here), it’s easy to see why the incentive to migrate is not that high.   Assuming that MS Office is the target for migration, lets run some quick napkin math.  Assuming that half of the desktops are engineering centric and can’t be migrated, there are 7,500 potential migrations.  Of those, probably half again are using applications only available on Windows, so we have 3,250 desktops available for potential migration.  Most enterprises pay around $60 per copy of MS Office and the replacement cycle is roughly 3 years, so that represents around $195,000 over 3 years, or around $65,000 a year.   If you just look at the cost of building a tech support team for OpenOffice, that is likely to cost around $400,000 (retraining 100 support people + hiring 5 experts) with around $300,000 of yearly recurring costs.  That means that it would take 6 years to recoup the cost of deploying OpenOffice just based on the cost of providing support (and that assumes that you would eliminate some support positions on the MS Office side to offset to cost of the ‘experts’).    And if you add end user training, integration costs and other issues, that lengthens the ROI timeline even more.

Yes, I know.  It’s depressing to inject this dose of reality in what is otherwise a very, very good thing.   However, after seven years of doing Open Source strategy for a very large number of different users (and as an Open Source user for 15 years), I’ve come to realize that there are certain hard realities that are difficult to overcome.   These kinds of calculations represent one of the hard realities.   And I haven’t even mentioned integration or maintenance.