It's the perennial question: are we approaching the year of Linux on the desktop?

This topic always stirs up plenty of debate across the net, with some highly vocal open source supporters claiming the next "big thing" will accelerate Linux adoption in the coming 12 months. A new Ubuntu release, or a new KDE version - these are always touted as potential kickstarts for a new era of desktop Linux.

Can Linux really compete?

Linux's marketshare hasn't boomed as many fans might have hoped over the last decade. So why should 2008 be any different?

For starters, there's the widespread dissatisfaction with Microsoft's Windows Vista, and not just the usual gripes. For years, Linux users have tried to win convertees by promoting the OS's reliability - but now that XP and Vista are fairly solid, that's not a huge selling point.

However, Vista users are frustrated with compatibility issues and DRM overload, making Linux a more attractive proposition: after all, if switching to Vista breaks your apps and stops your hardware from working, how much can you lose by trying Linux?

At least you won't be in a constant battle to play media that you've already bought. New distro releases such as Ubuntu 7.10 are a breeze to install, and can co-exist happily with Windows, providing an extra incentive to explore the OS.

Cheap PCs favour Linux

Another opportunity emerges from the advent of super-cheap PCs. Take the ASUS Eee, a tiny 7-inch laptop that's powered by Xandros Linux and costs a mere £220. Given that ASUS is selling the machine as a second home PC and learning tool for kids, most Eee users won't even be aware that they're running Linux.

However, the few that investigate further will discover that it's perfectly possible to do typical computing tasks without using Windows - web browsing, office work, listening to music and so on.

As the price of PCs continues to fall, the cost of Windows grows as a proportion of the overall price, even with the discounts that large box-shifters such as Dell receive. We're seeing some astonishingly cheap machines, such as Walmart's sell-out $199 PC, that can be so cost-effective thanks to Linux.

Historically, one of the biggest obstacles to widespread Linux adoption has been training and support. "You'll have to re-learn everything!" is the oft-pushed viewpoint.

And yet, the same applies if you're staying with Windows: Vista is a different animal to XP in many respects, and what about Office 2008? The slick new Ribbon interface, while praised by many, is worlds apart from the Office GUIs of yore.

The rise of online apps

But arguably the biggest incentive to switch to Linux isn't actually about Linux per se. It's about the shift to online applications - computing within the browser.

Increasingly, Joe Average user is spending more time in online applications like Gmail, Google Docs, Facebook, Flickr and the like than in normal desktop apps. Ultimately, this makes the underlying OS less relevant; providing you have a decent web browser (and a broadband connection), you've got access to most of the things you need.

Naturally, this doesn't apply to everyone, but for many users the OS is essentially a small shell for the web browser - so there's little need for a costly, fully-fledged OS like Windows when a small Linux distro will do the job.

Of course, these opportunities are still hindered by the thorny problem of compatibility. Until Photoshop runs on Linux, until it has the latest games, and until it supports the newest WhizzBang 3000 graphics card on release, the OS simply won't be an option for many users.

The same applies for companies: there are simply too many specialised Windows-only apps out there to make the switchover a painless process. So 2008 won't be a year of mass Linux conversion. But with ever-cheaper PCs, continuing Vista grumbles and better Web 2.0 apps, there's plenty of opportunity for Linux to snag more users.