A representative of Red Hat told a reporter recently that the company, which abandoned desktop Linux years ago in order to devote its energies to the server market, "will indeed be pushing the Linux desktop again."  Such a move would presumably present a challenge to Ubuntu, which has dominated the desktop scene for a long time.  Or would it?

According to Red Hat CTO Brian Stevens, the server giant intends to incorporate the KVM hypervisor into a solution that would serve virtualized Windows and Linux desktops to client machines over the network--in other words, Red Hat would be selling a thin-client deployment, with the slightly novel ingredient of virtualization mixed in.

Thin clients are hardly a new idea.  They've been around longer than Linux.  But despite all the traits that would seem to make thin clients great--they have cheaper hardware requirements and allow for greater centralization and standardization of software--they've rarely failed to gain traction outside of niche markets.

Red Hat's plan

Since Red Hat's not doing anything particularly original with this new foray into the desktop market, it's fair to conclude that it's responding to something rather than attempting to innovate.  Let's consider its potential motivations.

First, it could be argued that Red Hat anticipates desktop Linux becoming a profitable product for the first time in history, and wants to ensure itself a piece of the pie.  This seems unlikely, however, since Red Hat already participates indirectly in the desktop market through its sponsorship of the Fedora Project.  The company has its finger in the water by proxy, and unless it plans on radically redefining its relationship with Fedora, it's hard to imagine how Red Hat intends to make money off of desktop Linux with the solution it has envisioned so far.

It's also possible that Red Hat's move represents an attempt to compete more directly and comprehensively with Ubuntu.  Unlike the traditional big players in the commercial server world--Red Hat, Novell and Sun--Ubuntu made its name on the desktop first, and has used that momentum to assault the lucrative server market with increasing vigor over the last couple years.  It's plausible that Red Hat hopes to protect its share of the server market by opening a new front against Ubuntu on the desktop, undermining Canonical's largest power base.

This scenario, however, also seems unlikely.   First of all, Red Hat has bigger worries than Ubuntu in the enterprise-server realm, at least for now.  More importantly, if Red Hat were seeking a face-off with Ubuntu on the desktop, it probably wouldn't be touting the ability of its thin-client system to serve Windows as well as Linux; it would be talking about serving only Fedora.

So what exactly is Red Hat thinking, and should Ubuntu be worried about it?   It seems to me that Red Hat is hoping merely to play copycat to IBM, which recently announced a thin-client system targeted at enterprise customers that would deliver Ubuntu desktops to barebones workstations from IBM servers.

Red Hat vs. IBM, or Windows vs. Linux?

The big difference between Red Hat's and IBM's systems is that Red Hat has emphasized how nicely it plays with Windows, while IBM remains focused on the dream of deploying thousands of Ubuntu workstations, which is perhaps a bit unrealistic at this point--sadly, it will take a major sea change in the attitudes and skillsets of enterprise IT staff before many corporations become willing to switch to Ubuntu, although putting IBM's name behind desktop Linux is a good first step in achieving such a change.

Ultimately, while Red Hat's plan could involve a bit of indirect competition with Canonical if properly executed, IBM is the real target for now.  Moreover, I think it's fair to conclude that Red Hat will be focusing on deploying Windows more than Linux, since that's a lot easier to sell to customers.

Red Hat and IBM are therefore fighting different battles.  Red Hat needs to convince customers that there's a compelling reason to adopt a virtualized thin-client solution for managing what are mostly Windows environments--which will likely be tough, if the unimpressive adoption of thin clients historically is an indicator.  IBM's task, in contrast, is to persuade enterprises to switch to Ubuntu on their workstations, which presents its own set of challenges.

And Canonical needn't worry.  Red Hat isn't set to challenge Ubuntu's dominance of the Linux desktop in any serious way; neither will it be stunting Ubuntu's encroachment into the server market, at least for now.

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