Will Linux Topple Windows From the Desktop?

During recent industry conferences, Linux veterans pointed to factors that include usability, fragmentation in users’ preferences, and the need for both more desktop apps and better tech support.

“A few years from now, Microsoft will turn around and see that the desktop is no longer owned by Microsoft,” predicted Brian Behldendorf, Apache co-founder and CTO of Collab.Net, during an interview at the Comdex show in Las Vegas.

Behldendorf contended that the right “sequence of events” is now under way for “achieving ‘critical mass’ for Linux on the desktop.”

Others have suggested that delays in Longhorn, the next major edition of Microsoft’s OS, might prompt some people to switch to either Mac OS X or Linux.

Meanwhile, choices in Linux desktop software do keep growing, said Sam Greenblatt, SVP and chief architect in Computer Associates’ Linux Technology Group. Red Hat, for example, has produced a user interface known as BlueWave, introduced in version 8.

Also available, Greenblatt noted, are emulation environments such as Wine, a free implementation of Windows on Linux; Lindows, a relatively inexpensive OS that runs both Windows and Linux apps; and CrossOver Office, for installing Windows desktop applications in Linux, without the need for a Microsoft license (so far).

Many pointed to Novell’s newfound ability to bring Linux products into its long-time corporate and government accounts. “Novell’s acquisitions of Ximian and SuSE were absolutely brilliant moves. Novell will now have a Linux desktop environment,” Behlendorf enthused. Ximian Desktop 2 (XD2) includes the Ximian edition of OpenOffice, as well as Evolution, an e-mail and PIM application that can be directly integrated with Microsoft Exchange Server 2000.

“Novell will now go out of its way to make native SuSE a really viable OS,” concurred Chris Shiflett, an independent PHP developer, during Apache.Con. “The NetWare kernel is basically dead. Most people got tired of it by around NetWare 4 or 5,” he added.

Greenblatt foresees a major Linux desktop announcement from Novell during the first couple of months of 2004. Meanwhile, Sun is selling its own commercial edition of OpenOffice, known as StarOffice.

Microsoft could hardly be said to be taking Linux lightly, either. During the open source sessions at Comdex, Microsoft staffers sat in the audience, unabashedly jotting down voluminous notes.

Some Linux users, however, remain less than thrilled with the usability of Linux desktop environments and apps. “Red Hat is now almost ‘there’. Even at level 8, though, the goal is still to make the environment more user friendly,” said Richard A. “Rick” Huff, Ph.D., CPA, an associate professor of Computer Information Systems at Colorado State University.

“The Unix philosophy is to always make things as flexible as possible. Realistically, though, we as computer professionals still have problems with configuring the (Linux) enviornment,” according to Huff.

Shiflett, on the other hand, has “grown comfortable with KDE over the years.” KDE, however, is only one of many long-time Linux desktop environments. In Shiflett’s opinion, fragmentation will always be a sticking point, of sorts.

“In Linux, when a person has an itch about something, there’s an ongoing need to keep scratching that itch,” Shiflett said.

Linux on the desktop is already enjoying some well known implementations, such as Burlington Coat Factory and a planned migration from Windows to Linux in Munich city government.

CA’s Greenblatt anticipates additional widespread deployments of Linux desktops in the near future.

“At this point, though, for more of this to happen, more organizations should start accepting the idea of browser-based implementations,” Greenblatt maintained.

This story first ran December 1 on LinuxPlanet.com.