Linux on the desktop: Inevitable?

Summary:The dramatic rise of Linux, and the open source movement more generally, is unquestionable. But will we ever see Tux the penguin replacing Windows on the PC desktop? Joey Gardiner takes a look at the arguments for the open source model, and Linux's desktop prospects...

The dramatic rise of Linux, and the open source movement more generally, is unquestionable. But will we ever see Tux the penguin replacing Windows on the PC desktop? Joey Gardiner takes a look at the arguments for the open source model, and Linux's desktop prospects...

Linus Torvalds is often wrongly labelled the head of the open source software movement, as well as the creator of the Linux operating system (OS). It's an idolatrous world we live in. In reality, open source as a method of software development - making access to source code freely available - has been around for over 20 years, certainly long before Linux. It was even instrumental in the creation of Unix. The internet - itself the product of a certain openness of standards and co-operation - has also fed open source, making easier a form of software development based on virtual communities working together. However the growth of Linux, and Torvalds as a personality, has been a significant boost to the open source movement. Its immense popularity, alongside its technical robustness, has not gone unnoticed by the commercial world. The major IT powerhouses minus Microsoft - IBM, Intel, HP, Sun - have now all adopted Linux to a greater or lesser extent. Their interest just wouldn't be the same if Linux weren't open source. Eric Raymond's seminal essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar described why having open access to code is preferable to traditional, proprietary development. The theory is that it allows software to be ruggedly road-tested by independent peers. Raymond, president of the Open Source Initiative, compares the process to other experimental fields of research: "In civil engineering, with suspension bridges you don't get to string wire until your plans have been reviewed externally - it should be exactly the same with software." He blames a closed approach - which keeps source code secret - for creating unreliable, buggy software. It is a criticism Microsoft has long fought to defend itself against. It says companies want products that come in fully supported, stable versions - a situation open source development makes impossible. Yet Torvalds, who clearly believes freely available source code makes for good software, acknowledges some players discomfort with the model. What he regards as liberating, software vendors may regard as a threat. He told "Openness makes for some complexities - you kind of lose control - but I enjoy that part." In the long run, the commercial adoption of Linux may well go down as the open source movement's greatest achievement. In the low-end server and web server space it is fast becoming the operating system of choice. However, while popular mythology pits Torvalds, Raymond and open source as the ideological antithesis of Gates' Microsoft, Linux rarely slugs it out toe-to-toe with most versions of Windows. (Torvalds himself is ambivalent towards the Redmond giant, happy to do deals with it in his current role at chips designer Transmeta.) To do so - and for the converted it is virtually a crusade - it needs to challenge Microsoft on the desktop. But until now, Linux has made little ground in a desktop arena which Microsoft still firmly dominates. It isn't hard to characterise this as its biggest test. Taking on Microsoft here would deliver the mindshare Linux currently lacks with most non-techie IT users. For Torvalds it is definitely a goal. He said: "It's clear that's an incredibly interesting area for a lot of people. Obviously Microsoft is very dominant at the moment, but I don't see that as being forever." The main problem is that desktop applications that run on Linux are currently thin on the ground. But there are ongoing attempts to change that. Two open source groups - KDE (K Desktop Environment) League, and GNOME (GNU Object Modelling Environment) - are battling to be the pre-eminent supplier for the Linux desktop. Linux vendors such as Red Hat and SuSE are also keen to associate themselves with this high-profile push. Michael Meeks, a software engineer who works for Ximian, within the GNOME project, says corporations already have options. "You can run Mozilla to replace Internet Explorer, Evolution to replace Outlook and OpenOffice to provide productivity tools. We are now approaching a fully featured desktop alternative," he said. Among open source devotees there is no shortage of users running a Linux desktop. SuSE runs a Linux desktop internally, although it admits wider adoption is still a couple of years off. Microsoft still accounts for something like 90 per cent of the world's desktop OS market. However, moves like adopting a rental model for licensing - which may mean price increases in some cases - could increasingly make firms look elsewhere. Steve Hnizdur, principal consultant at NetProject, says the issue is about changing IT strategy, as well as raw technology: "Eighty per cent of users only use 20 per cent of their available functionality. IT directors need to look exactly at what people are using and get Linux to provide this, rather than just swallowing whatever Microsoft comes up with." But still analysts and users remain unconvinced. Mike Thompson, director of research at the Butler Group, is unequivocal. He said: "At the end of the day Microsoft has the desktop market sewn up - I can't see any reason for anyone to change." But wouldn't a Linux-based desktop be far cheaper than Microsoft's alternative? "You have to weigh cost against how happy people are with it. The applications aren't there right now," Butler's Thompson added. Geoff Petherick, representing the IBM Computer Users Association, hardly disagrees. He said there are plenty of users still sceptical about Linux's benefits. Microsoft, for its part, has made it clear it doesn't think quality applications will emerge because there isn't a business case to support developing them. Perhaps that misses the point of open source, and of the whole free software movement. Take sendmail, the internet messaging standard, or hypertext protocols or Linux. There was little commercial incentive for the development of these innovations. As Torvalds says, Microsoft fails to understand people do work - especially a lot of developers - without dollar signs in front of their eyes, and to a high standard. This is not to say the Linux desktop will succeed. Currently apps fall short of what seasoned Microsoft users expect, and moving over can be a leap of faith. What's more, the concept of intellectual openness and collaboration as the quickest route to solve complex problems is difficult for many in the industry to swallow, even if its time has come. Ultimately, the Linux versus Microsoft holy war, or the desktop battle, doesn't really matter to most users. Good products do. And if the Microsofts of this world can find it in themselves to lean less heavily on copyright law and share a bit of information, there is a growing school of thought that everyone just might be better off. To buy a copy of Linus Torvalds' Just For Fun at the reduced price of £16.20, visit . Don't forget to check out's exclusive interviews with and insights into the father of Linux on .

Topics: Hardware

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