During my recent interview with Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst, I was struck by his assertion that if you don't need--and aren't getting--bulletproof uptime from your desktop operating system, then it doesn't make sense to be paying for it.
He has a good point.
The fundamental job of an operating system is running applications and managing hardware. There are both free and for-a-fee operating system options, which, given requisite hardware and application maker support, perform their core go-between task similarly well. If this is the case, and you're paying for a particular client desktop, are you getting your money's worth?
Whitehurst specifically was referring to the mainstream consumer desktop market, which Red Hat has steadfastly demurred from entering, but I think it's fair to extend the analysis to enterprises as well.
After all, the enterprise desktop is not so different from the consumer desktop, not in the usage models (where the job of the consumer desktop is arguably more challenging and diverse) and not in the reality of what makes up the enterprise or the consumer desktop.
Windows clients--in all their multiplying home, enthusiast, business or enterprise-oriented SKUs--are more or less the same. On the Linux side of things, there are greater distinctions between home and business versions than exist in the Windows world, but these are mostly related to support and slower update pace.
At this point, I don't think that the enterprise desktop Linux offerings from Red Hat or Novell are sufficiently superior to their community Linux counterparts to extract license fees out of the majority of organizations and individuals that opt for Linux.
What's more, while Windows now enjoys a massive head start in hardware and software maker adoption, I don't think that Windows, in its current vein of development, is sufficiently superior to free alternatives to hold them off forever. The limp uptake of Vista, even months past Service Pack 1, demonstrates how little customers value Microsoft's recent client efforts.
Getting the desktops we pay for means tighter lockdown and more granular permissions; it means no-hassle data encryption, both on-device and as that data moves out into the network; it means support for stateless configurations, with sessions that flow from one device to the next as users' needs and locations change.
As matters stand, these sorts of solutions can be built through a host of add-ons and consulting engagements. However, moving forward in a world in which basic operating system functionality has become a commodity, Microsoft, Red Hat and other platform vendors will be--and should be--held to deliver enterprise-class functionality for the enterprise-size licensing dollars they seek.