Eye2Eye: Dirk Hohndel of SuSE Linux, Part I

Dirk Honhdel, chief technical officer with SuSE Linux, talks to ZDNet's Will Knight about the desktop, Windows 2000 and why his grandma ain't using Linux... yet
Written by Will Knight, Contributor

SuSE chief executive Roland Dyroff recently said that Linux is not ready for the desktop. What do you have to say about this?

It was a conditional statement taken as a general one. Linux is very well-equipped for the desktop marketplace. It's just that there are areas in this market where Linux still has more to add and more to learn.

Linux, today, is very much capable of filling the requirements of most desktop users. The main thing here is that Linux is a very good choice for technically interested users. If you're talking about grandma and granddaddy using a computer, then you have to ask: Is Linux the right choice? That is an area where we are talking about user friendliness, ease of use. I'm not saying it's bad, I'm not saying we're not there yet, I'm just saying there is still a road ahead.

The very same is true if you look at the enterprise market space. Yes, we achieved a lot in terms of stability and reliability, but on the topic of high availability -- that is something that's hugely important. There is a lot more that can be done and that we're going to do.

Some companies claim that version of Linux is entirely ready for the desktop. What do you think of this?

There are people overstating and focusing totally on marketing. I think this is not a valid long-term business model. If you look at their offerings, they are very limited. This is minimum Linux. Yes, you get a nice taste, and then if you like it you buy something like SuSE Linux. This is something we actually see happening in the market, which is nice. But addressing a broader audience and getting more people interested -- that's actually good for SuSE.

So is it a question of their version of Linux being more ready for desktop users than SuSE?

Windows users who have never used Linux before want trivial installation, and they want a very familiar look and feel. But you're missing out on a lot of the features of Linux. That is why I'm saying this is very good. Because it gets used to the idea of Linux, and once they have, they're going to move on.

But if you're going to make Linux more suitable for grandma and grandpa, aren't you going to lose some of its power?

I don't think you're losing the power, it's more that you're losing some of the flexibility to adapt to your hardware. Or you may be losing some of the special features. But you're not losing the technology behind it, because the OS that is running is basically the same. It's more an issue of configuration to the hardware environment. The point here is not to trade off flexibility for ease of use. One of the means of doing that is to differentiate your product more, so you allow people to choose if they want the very easy or very flexible one. With SuSE, you can choose between a easy user interface and a more complicated one. I believe this is something that will become more commonplace -- that you will cater to different people's needs.

Do you see there being a time when Linux is as prevalent as Windows on the desktop?

Oh yes. definitely. If you look at the desktop, a lot of manufacturers are starting to ship their own drivers, so you will get Linux drivers on your CD just as you get Windows drivers on a CD. Soon, hardware support will no longer be an issue.

What do you need at home? You need a connection to the Internet, you need a Web browser and you need an email client. You need something to play your MP3s on and you need an office product -- maybe a spreadsheet, maybe a presentation program. All this is included in a £30 package. If you go out and you buy Windows 2000 and Office 2000 and all these tools, then you have spent most likely £2,000 (£1,240) and you have very similar, if not less, functionality.

With the increasing quality of the product and the increasing knowledge of people about this product, I see Linux becoming the one major competitor of Windows. I believe these two forces will soon be of similar magnitude.

How long will it take for Linux to be this sort of a competitor to Windows?

Any predictions of time in the past have been so incredibly wrong. Had you asked me three years ago when Linux would be the prevailing OS in Web servers, I would have said five years... and I would have been wrong. I would say two to three years [to take on Microsoft on the desktop], but you never know.

So what is the biggest thing that is going to effect adoption of Linux on more desktops?

If you want to win the desktop, you have to look at games. What do you need an Athlon 900 for? Not for Microsoft Office. Games are very important. More and more games are going to be available on Linux.

I'm sure that this Christmas there will be a lot of games. I'm not saying there will be as many for Linux as Windows, I'm just saying that the ratio will be very much better than today. Games are a very important way into that market, and we're working with the major players to get more games onto the Linux desktop. I'm very optimistic.

See also Eye2Eye: Dirk Hohndel of SuSE Linux, Part II.

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