Linux users fret about desktop fate

Two major moves by well-known Linux companies have the open-source community worried that the consumer is being left behind.
Written by Robert Lemos, Contributor on
Two major moves by well-known Linux companies have the open-source community worried that the consumer is being left behind.

On Monday, in an expected move, Red Hat said that it would stop supporting all consumer versions of Red Hat Linux by the end of April and that it planned to support only its business version of the operating system. On Tuesday, enterprise software maker Novell surprised the high-tech world when announced an agreement to buy software maker SuSE Linux for $210 million.

For the business world, the deals seemingly confirmed the corporate role for the communal operating system. However, many Linux enthusiasts worry that the Linux community may have lost its two most popular distributions--Red Hat Linux and SuSE Linux--in a corporate equivalent of a one-two punch.

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"When you go into a CompUSA or Best Buy, the only versions of Linux that you can find on the shelves are Red Hat and SuSE," said Jack Alderson, a Linux and Sun systems administrator for custom-chip maker X-Fab Texas. Alderson fears that Novell will stop creating consumer-oriented versions of SuSE Linux, which he uses at home. "With Red Hat's announcement, that pulled them off of the shelf and out of the general public's view. All there was left was SuSE. Now that's going to disappear also."

The moves could return consumers to a choice of Linux distributions from smaller companies--such as Mandrake, Xandros or Lindows--or from community projects such as Debian, Fedora, Gentoo and Slackware.

Novell appears to be planning to carry SuSE's open-source torch, but it hasn't made specific comments regarding lower-priced versions of its Linux products.

"Novell is committed to the open-source community," Chief Executive Jack Messman said Tuesday in a conference call. "With SuSE, we gain access to and will continue to actively support key SuSE-sponsored open-source initiatives."

While SuSE's high-end server products retail for $450 or more, SuSE 9 Professional--which includes publicly available Linux server packages--only costs $80.

Charles Philip Chan, a Toronto resident who has used Linux for about a decade, believes that Novell's acquisition is additional validation for the open-source operating system.

"On one hand it is good, because it looks like Linux is moving in the commercial space," he said, adding that consumers still have a lot of choice among community projects on the Internet. "There are a lot of other distributions out there."

However, Chan said the consumer market will likely expand at a slower rate, because there will be fewer versions on shelves at retail stores. While Red Hat Linux won't be available at retail, the company is supporting a community project, Fedora, to create distributions based on cutting-edge Linux technology.

Arthur Tyde, the founder and former president of the Bay Area Linux Users' Group, is optimistic about SuSE remaining a choice for consumers. SuSE Linux 9 has already been released, and he fully expects to see the next version at retail.

"I think it is wait and see," he said. "It might not affect the community at all. From a consumer standpoint, I think you will still see SuSE Linux in CompUSA."

Moreover, while some have viewed troubled Novell's purchase plans as a potential threat to SuSE, Tyde said that Novell is just getting a second chance and who knows what the company will do with SuSE.

"You have to think about what they are really buying," he said. "They are not buying the rights to all that code. They are buying credibility to that space."

And, Tyde said, for Novell to gain credibility in the Linux community means keeping consumer product on the shelves.

CNET News.com's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.

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