Red Hat, Novell, Canonical and the free software desktop

3:45 pm freesoftware, General, marketing

Lots of people are up in arms because Red Hat’s desktop team released a statement containing this: “we have no plans to create a traditional desktop product for the consumer market in the foreseeable future”, and Ron Hovsepian said “Novell’s Suse Linux at the desktop is unlikely to be popular with consumers in the next three to five years”. To me, this is not defeatism, it is simply an example of positioning in action. Last year at Solutions Linux in Paris, I did a little experiment, designed to show that Mandriva have a problem with their positioning. I asked several people to tell me what market they thought the following popular distributions targeted:

  • Red Hat
  • Novell
  • Ubuntu
  • Mandriva

The answers were unanimous:

  • Red Hat: Enterprise servers
  • Novell: Enterprise desktops
  • Ubuntu: Consumer desktops
  • Mandriva: Ummm…

I don’t want to pick on Mandriva, but it’s true that right now they’re aiming for the general consumer, the enterprise desktop and the enterprise server, and are not competing particularly well with the front-runners in any of those markets.

So when Red Hat comes out and says “We’re focusing on making the desktop a great tool for sysadmins of enterprise servers”, what they’re really doing is reinforcing their positioning. Are they laying people off, or investing less in GNOME? No – but they are focusing on features more important to the enterprise segment.

And when Novell’s CEO says “The market for the desktop for the next three to five years is mainly enterprise-related”, what he’s really saying is “we are aiming for the enterprise desktop market” – that’s why Novell are interested in groupware, lock-down, virtualisation and a whole bunch of other stuff which is useful to enterprise desktop users. That’s not to say that Novell aren’t selling servers – they’re probably making more money off servers than desktops right now – but that’s not where they are best positioned, and so that’s not where they’re putting their efforts (at least their interview quote efforts).

And why would they? The free software world has, in Ubuntu, a strong incumbent in the small but growing consumer Linux desktop market. It is much better for Red Hat and Novell to grow the enterprise server and desktop niches, and maintain a good chunk of “their” niche, than it is to fight over a tiny, but growing, piece of cake which is owned by Ubuntu right now.So both let community distributions fight that fight, since community distributions want to be all things to all people, and maybe in a few years there will be enough money in the consumer Linux desktop, and Canonical will make enough mistakes to make it vulnerable, to make it worth putting sales people on it.

Until then, the people who feel betrayed at statements like these should really rejoice that the consumer Linux desktop has become significant enough to warrant comment at all! We’ve come a long way, and we’re going to go much farther. We may not have market share, but what we do have is momentum.

10 Responses

  1. Michael R. Head Says:

    What about “Small Business” desktops and servers? Who’s got that?

  2. Anonymous Coward Says:

    Very clear and insightful. Good work.

  3. Qhartman Says:


    Right now, that segment is owned by whichever distro the person doing the installation likes. Nobody is really targeting that space well right now. It is the segment that Canonical seems to be targeting with their new server / desktop integration and management initiatives, like Landscape. Only time will tell if that will work…

  4. DeeJay1 Says:

    IMHO “Small Business” is usually supported by local distributions, usually cut to support specific needs. There are many of them across the world…

  5. Dave Neary Says:

    @DeeJay1: I agree with Qhartman – right now, there is no-one addressing the small business specifically, and Ubuntu, or maybe Debian, are winning there by default.

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  8. Adam Williamson Says:

    Ubuntu Server’s not working out well, then? And how about Ubuntu Mobile?

  9. Dave Neary Says:

    @Adam: Exactly – when I spoke of the mistakes Canonical are making, I think that the dilution of their very strong consumer desktop bran is a mistake.

    Ubuntu Mobile in particular makes little sense to me – I don’t see the opportunity. Ubuntu server makes more sense, since many in SMBs will use it as a drop-in replacement for another do-it-yourself server OK like say Debian.

    But aiming for enterprise and competing *too* directly with Novell and RH would be, IMHO, a mistake for Ubuntu at this stage. For the time being, I don’t see them doing that.


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