What are Red Hat, Novell and Canonical going to have to do in 2008 to in order to dominate the desktop and server Linux market?
Let’s take a moment and assess the situation. Red Hat is the dominant force in Linux right now. They own the enterprise market. SUSE is also supported by many IHVs as a ready-to-install operating system (OS), but does not have nearly the market share as flouted by the fedora. Ubuntu is the little Linux OS that could and, in the last three years, it has gripped the desktop Linux market with a stranglehold and will not let go.
It seems that each distribution has found a niche: Red Hat and Ubuntu are the leaders in their markets, and SUSE is a comfortable runner-up. However, history has shown us that businesses are not content to stay still too long or play second fiddle. So, what will Red Hat, SUSE, and Ubuntu have to do in the new year to gain new ground?
I’ve been using Red Hat Linux since the mid-90s. They are arguably the most successful proprietors of Linux ever. Red Hat figured out what many companies are just now figuring out about virtualization: it’s not always about the core technology, it is about how you support and manage that technology. Red Hat provides a better support and management structure for their products than any other Linux vendor. It is no wonder they dominate the enterprise market.
On the flip side of the coin, Red Hat has long since been usurped as leaders on desktops. There was Slackware, then Gentoo and now Ubuntu. Sure, Red Hat sponsors the Fedora Core project, but it does not have the market share to be considered in the same game as Red Hat. In the coming year, Red Hat needs to get rid of the Fedora Core moniker and reel its desktop community back in under the auspices of the Red Hat name. Red Hat is associated with stability and the enterprise: they need to create a desktop product that also has these associations. True, Red Hat offers its Enterprise Linux Desktop product, but it lacks the bleeding-edge features of Fedora Core that make the latter so appealing to the desktop crowds. Red Hat must figure out how to transition the passion of the Fedora Core audience back into the house that the Fedora built. Once Red Hat is able to recapture those users, then it can finally offer a datacenter-to-desktop computing solution that can dominate servers and workstations everywhere.
Novell has been one of the most prolific innovators in the IT industry for over the past two decades. Unfortunately, the company that should be a global IT leader today has suffered one bad management and marketing decision after another. Case in point: all this nifty, gee-whiz technology called Compiz for desktops originated with Novell. Do most people know that? I doubt it. They’re probably more familiar with the rift between Beryl and the original Compiz developers (and subsequent kiss-and-make up).
The reason that Novell barely gets credit for its work is that its marketing team never leads with anything remotely innovative. If they played it any safer they’d be asleep! Remember iFolder? Unless you’re a fan of information synchronization software you probably do not. iFolder was a Novell project that offered unparalleled functionality in the arena of client compatibility and server features. What happened to it? Novell did not know what to do with it and open sourced the code in order to wash their hands of the project.
In the next 52 weeks Novell needs to do what they do best: innovate. Then they need to do well the thing they do worst: they need to lead with their innovation. They need to create a mass marketing campaign around SUSE Linux and its new innovative features that will leave the other vendors in the dust. Novell needs to stop playing the shrinking violet and give a new generation of Linux users a reason to hold Novell SUSE Linux high above the other distributions.
Ubuntu has become the desktop user’s Linux of choice in the past three years and shows no signs of slowing down. Canonical understands what Novell does not, and that is marketing. The marketing machine behind Ubuntu has been working non-stop. Additionally, it does not hurt that Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical’s founder and CEO, is as charismatic as Steve Jobs and is forming deals with independent hardware vendors that results in Ubuntu being offered by the likes of Dell on their laptops and desktops.
Canonical is correct in that their next move should be to penetrate the server market. From their server and JeOS versions of Ubuntu to their alliances with IHVs in hopes of getting Ubuntu officially supported on server hardware, they are doing everything correct. However, they could be doing more. Canonical is in the unique position of having herds of passionate users behind them. (Actually Apple is in the same position, but they seem to have forgotten that they are a computer company.) They have a loyalty base not seen on this side of OS X. Canonical needs to leverage this loyalty and create a vertical initiative that will provide even more features to its desktop users as long as the servers said users are connecting to run the Ubuntu OS. Think Bonjour for Ubuntu. There is no reason that Canonical cannot achieve this with Open Source projects either. From integrating Beagle with ZeroConf to collaborative TomBoy notes-sharing technology. It is all possible.
The ultimate achievement would be when Canonical finally creates an Active Directory-like system to integrate its server OS and desktop OS into a single, manageable environment.
A three-way see-saw
The Linux market is currently a three-way see-saw. Any of the big three vendors could change the balance of things. Do you have a different outlook? I’d love to hear it!