The first day of LinuxCon 2011 started off with a keynote from the Linux Foundation's Jim Zemlin, in which he joked about the perpetually-next-year "year of the Linux desktop." Interestingly enough, that afternoon a smaller session with Userful Corporation's Timothy Griffin dealt with Linux on desktops in massive numbers. Userful deploys Linux in very large-scale "digital inclusion" projects — such as schools in second- and third-world environments — including the world's largest, a 500,000 seat deployment in Brazil.
Userful is a small, Calgary-based company that contracts with local system integrators to roll-out Linux desktops, usually in schools, and often to fulfill government mandates to deploy open source software. Griffin showed a cartogram that colored the countries of the world by the relative price of a PC, and scaled the size of each country by its population. According to that graphic, the vast majority of the world population lives in countries where a computer costs the equivalent of 6 months' salary (or more), and the ratio of schoolchildren to computers is as high as 150 to 1.
In those countries, governments frequently undertake nation-wide computing initiatives (sometimes even creating national Linux distributions), for basic cost-saving reasons and to keep development and IT support jobs in-country. When deploying the machines into schools, Griffin said, the cost of the hardware accounts for but a fraction of the overall cost: power may be expensive and unreliable, the site may be several days journey on difficult roads, and there may be no Internet connection for updates and IT support. As a result, Userful tailors its software solution to function in circumstances that ordinary Linux distributions do not.
The most visible difference seen in Userful deployments is multi-seat
PCs. Using commodity hardware, the company configures machines to serve up
five to ten front-ends (including monitor, keyboard/mouse, and sound) from
a single PC. Userful's multi-seat setup relies on USB hubs, using hardware
from HP, ViewSonic, and a number of other commodity peripheral vendors. While in
the past such multi-seat configurations would have required special-purpose
components, Griffin said that (ironically, perhaps) the popularity of
Microsoft's "Windows Multipoint" product led to a glut of easily available
hardware. The USB devices at each front end include simple graphics chips
of the same type used in laptop docks, and are capable of running applications at normal, "local" speed — unlike most remote-desktop thin client configurations. A "medium" strength PC with four CPU cores can serve ten front ends running normal office applications, and do so using less power than ten low-end PCs, plus offer simplified configuration management, printer sharing, updates, and support.
The Brazil deployment has been rolling out in phases since 2008, and
currently includes more than 42,000 schools in 4,000 cities. The base
distribution is one created by the Brazilian government, called Educational Linux [Portuguese], which is based
on Kubuntu. But a bigger component of the project, Griffin said, was the
support system that was also built by the government to provide teachers with classroom materials and software updates, and students with a social networking component. The computers are pre-loaded with multi-gigabyte data stores — from lesson plans to video content, and in rural areas without Internet access, updates are sent by mail on DVD.
As a case study, Griffin noted, the Brazil deployment reveals valuable lessons for the Linux and open source community as a whole, on subjects such as "sustainability," where too often the focus is on power consumption alone. But a genuinely "sustainable" deployment must sustain itself, he argued, including being resilient to lack of an Internet connection, predictable visits from IT staff, and teachers that may not have any more experience with computing than do the schoolchildren.
Griffin called these situations "green field" deployments, where there is no pre-existing computing environment at all. They are common in regions of the world where computers are expensive, he said, and where national governments often do studies and end up mandating the use of Linux and open source.
Where open source is silently ceding the field
Yet despite those mandates, he said, Microsoft Windows often ends up ultimately getting deployed instead. There are many reasons why, including lobbying efforts, entrenched players, politics, and money. But the troubling part is that the open source community has no response to these gambits, even when they are based entirely on FUD and distortion. The major commercial Linux distributions (Red Hat, SUSE, etc.) put no effort into competing for green field deployments, and offer no on-the-ground field support to those who lobby and bid for the contracts.
There is not an easy solution; what is needed to improve the situation includes better coverage of the large-scale success stories to counteract FUD and even outright lack-of-knowledge. Griffin told an audience member that there are many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in impoverished nations that run Windows on their computers solely because they have no idea that Linux even exists. In fact, he added, they pay full price for their licenses, when they could save considerable money just by telling Microsoft they were considering Linux and getting a steep discount in return.
The green field market is one that Linux and open source ought to fight hard to win, Griffin said, for precisely the reasons that Zemlin said Linux had been successful in the first world: its free availability enables innovation and experimentation in areas (inside and outside of the technology field) that are simply unpredictable. National governments regularly end up recommending and mandating open source, Griffin argued, because they see that by not buying into a proprietary solution owned by a foreign company, they put more power into the hands of their own people.
If you want to see the year of the Linux desktop, he said, look to the green field deployments. "The next billion computer users haven't even decided what their operating system is going to be." Brazil's roll-out of 500,000 desktops running Linux has put Linux into the hands of millions of students. In five to ten years, the open source community is going to see a return on that investment when those students enter the workplace, having been trained on a computer — easily the most powerful educational tool in the world — that runs free software. Microsoft recognizes that those stakes are huge, and has adopted a "win at any cost" strategy. Unfortunately the open source community is not nearly as organized, and lets many of those opportunities slip from its grasp.
As Griffin said repeatedly, there is no simple answer: his company works on software, but most of the work needing to be done is hands-on and in-the-field. But for all the talk at LinuxCon about how the PC era is over, it is a powerful reminder that the smartphone and tablet wars are a decidedly first-world problem, and that for most of the computer users of the future, the desktop battle is far from being over.
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