Linux desktop: Closer than you think

Developers expect groundswell of demand after smoothing out lingering interface issues.
Written by Lisa M. Bowman, Contributor

Mention Linux as an operating system for desktop computers and you'd likely trigger snickering. A group of rag-tag developers making even a tiny dent in Microsoft's empire?

Yeah, right.

But things are different here at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo in San Jose, California, where proponents of the up-and-coming operating system were out in force. Not only do they have their eyes set on garnering increased corporate support for the server side, but a handful of companies are placing big bets on desktop Linux taking off. Even Linus Torvalds sees huge potential (though he says so with his trademark smirk, so it's hard to tell whether he's kidding).

"I still see the desktop market as the most interesting market because it's so hard to enter," Torvalds said during a question and answer session with reporters. "The reason Linux has been so successful in the server space is because it's a much easier market to enter." Proponents of free software also cite its can't-beat price tag as well as the lax restrictions on copying. They argue that schools and companies can save a lot of money compared to what they spend on Microsoft software. Though Linux remains notoriously difficult for the average person to install and use, that could change as more developers smooth out the bumps.

Indeed, members of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) -- a non-profit group in America that promotes shared software -- have ambitious plans for Gnome, a user-interface project that's designed to make Linux more accessible. The FSF is working on a series of projects including one focusing on the desktop that will include support for at least 17 languages, PalmPilot, a spreadsheet compatible with Microsoft's Excel spreadsheet as well as calendar and e-mail functions.

Gnome 2.0, which is scheduled to debut next spring, will include other features. But because the software is free, anybody is allowed to contribute code or learn more at the gnome.org Web site. In the race to make desktop computers easier to operate, Gnome is in a battle with the K Desktop Environment, or KDE, another graphical user interface designed to make Unix-like operating systems easier to use -- though each side is quick to downplay the rivalry.

While KDE is now ready for prime time, many developers at LinuxWorld said they were eagerly awaiting the Gnome 2.0 release. In fact, some companies, such as Red Hat Inc., ship versions of both interfaces while other Linux distributors said they intend to follow suit. "I think Linux on the desktop is a viable option," said game developer Emmett Plant, listing word processing and spreadsheets as the essential products. "You've really got everything you need to function as a member of computing society."

Plant, who spends his days as an IT manager at Funtime International, the maker of the Krazy Straw, said he spends nearly 80 hours a week working on his hobby project, shepherding about 150 developers. By the time LinuxWorld rolls around in February, Plant expects to have a playable game called Time City. "We're happy to bring people to Linux with really cool games," said Plant, adding that games are key to attracting increased attention from desktop developers. "I know people who've changed operating systems because of games."

Interestingly, users who fit that profile often switched to Windows, a market where the best games usually come out the quickest. But folks such as Plant and Scott Draeker, founder of game maker Loki, want to bring them to Linux. After all, the market for games and Linux overlaps almost completely: males from 18 to 35. Draeker quit his job as a software licensing attorney last year to start Loki, which publishes popular games for Linux. The company already ships Civilization: Call to Power for Linux, available at CompUSA and other mainstream stores. It unveiled Myth II for Linux and plans to ship a total of eight games this year and 16 next year. "I'm very excited about Linux' prospects. It's taken off beyond anyone's predictions," he said.

And then there are the big-name companies looking at Linux desktop. At the show, Corel showed off, due in September, and promised a new Linux-compatible version of WordPerfect for Office early next year. Others, such as Dell Computer Corp., had already said they would ship Linux on some desktop computers.

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