From the December 2003 issue of Entrepreneur

I've heard Linux is for geeks; that whatever I might save on a ridiculously cheap Linux PC, I'll pay in tech support costs spawned by "nonstandard" aspects of this operating system. I've also heard that a Linux desktop is the answer to the growing blob of cosmetically enhanced Windows software that has me replacing perfectly good PCs with ever-faster systems, just so I can continue to write e-mail and Word documents.

Suspecting that the truth lies somewhere in between, I bought a Linux desktop-a BusinessStation from software company Lindows.com Inc., to be precise. I wanted the full Linux experience, from the Web site shopping cart to compatibility with Windows tools to tech support.

This particular Linux PC is of additional interest to businesses because it also suggests a sometimes-controversial vision of how to equip nongeek workers (those who aren't juggling beaucoup apps, designing Web pages or crunching spreadsheets with rows out to the horizon). Basically, these employees need something that fits shrinking work spaces or constrained environments-call centers, retail stores, cube farms-and can be audited and managed from afar by IT staff.

BusinessStations are configured to operate like the classic network PC or thin client, without relying on local storage. Instead, they run Microsoft Office work-alikes and other apps from either a network server or the distribution CD-ROM, which doubles as the boot drive for the operating system. The $169 (street) BusinessStation-yes, you heard that right, $169-is intended to be merely a console on some distributed computer in the sky á la Oracle chairman Larry Ellison's famous assertion that the network is the PC.

Lindows.com doesn't actually build BusinessStations; rather, it provides its OS and applications to others who build the net PCs that connect to its Web site. None are robust enough to run Windows XP. But that won't scare away many Linux users who are accustomed to doing what they do on very little PC.

I chose Wintergreen Systems' BusinessStation, powered by a 1.1GHz AMD Duron with 256MB of reasonably fast PC2100 double-data-rate SDRAM. The other key components: floppy and 56X CD-ROM drives, a 56K modem in one of three PCI slots, an Ethernet port and six USB 2.0 ports. If you handed me those components in a paper bag, I'd still be thrilled because they'd still be a bargain.

But maybe this is a good time to observe that, to a business, price tag is very much a secondary consideration. It's the total cost of ownership (TCO) of a PC that counts, and the principal expense there is always the same: anything that slows down employee computing, prompts a help desk call or, worse, a visit from tech support.

According to Michael Silver, a vice president and research director with research firm Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Connecticut, the cost of the PC and client operating system represents only a small part of the overall TCO, generally 20 to 30 percent.

Adding It Up
No one knows more about it than Gartner, which has studied TCO for years and has several analysts working on Linux migration issues. Basically, Gartner gives a thumbs up to Linux desktops for "structured task workers," but not knowledge workers.

The former are employees who use a few applications and perform a limited number of computing tasks repeatedly. The latter are managers, designers, analysts and such, who run diverse combinations of applications. The more homegrown applications, macro-bedecked spreadsheets and highly formatted document templates your company uses, the more it will cost to port those tools-probably created in Windows-to Linux. You'll have to rewrite them and retrain users. Ka-ching!

But smaller enterprises or anyone sticking to standard, off-the-shelf software can avoid those costs. Linux suites such as Sun Microsystem's StarOffice and OpenOffice.org are very compatible with popular Windows applications, notes Silver. Also noteworthy: About three-quarters of employees fit Gartner's structured task worker definition.

You'll want to run the numbers for your own workplace, but Gartner's findings don't rule out Linux desktops like BusinessStation.

So How'd It Do?
Space is short, so I'll just give you the Lindows BusinessStation highlights. (E-mail me if you have questions.)

Like Gartner, I found that document, desktop publishing, photo and graphics files-even multidimensional Excel spreadsheets-transferred back and forth between Windows and Lindows applications with only the most trivial of tweaks. Worst case: You'll lose some favorite font, math function or right-click mouse convention. But I don't see why switching to Linux would cause any more help desk calls than a new version of anything else.

The Wintergreen desktop worked OK, but slowly. It's not the processor or the memory; it's the idea of running OS and apps off a CD. Yes, you can, but the time wasted will quickly add up to the price of a new Dell.

The chassis is a standard minitower in every way except that it lacks a hard drive. That helps achieve a "locked" client, secure from unauthorized changes. But then, there's the speed thing-and you'd be amazed at how difficult it is to get Ethernet and USB peripherals configured without a hard drive.

Yeah, what do I expect for $169? Here's what I got-a noisy, re-purposed consumer PC that's not powerful enough for a knowledge worker and without the features usually found on thin clients. Is tech support any help? I don't know, because I've never gotten past Wintergreen's answering machine.

Lindows.com touts the systems as though it has something to do with them, when in fact, it's a couple of levels removed. It asks for $59 per year for software support, which seems eminently fair. But it's not exactly like buying from Dell or IBM, is it?

Bottom line: Linux is ready for some desktops. Just make sure the desktops you buy are ready for Linux.

 
LINUX SHORTCUT

Want a quick way to get Linux cost benefits without overhauling your desktops? Just buy Windows versions of Linux applications, like Sun Microsystems' StarOffice ( www.staroffice.com ) or OpenOffice.org, says Gartner. (See Suite Deal" for more on these programs.)

Most of the savings associated with Linux desktops should actually be credited to Linux applications-instead of $350 for the standard Microsoft Office Edition, you'll pay $75 for StarOffice. No, you can't copy Linux software for free. But there's no forced upgrade licensing policy, either, so you might expect to save by upgrading less frequently. Naturally, StarOffice for Windows files will be at home on Linux desktops, too.