The Year Ahead: Linux continues to push for the desktop

The open-source operating system is making slow progress onto the desktop, but recent developments could mean it is there to stay

The good news for Linux as an operating system for the desktop -- as opposed to the server -- is that it is set to become No. 2 after Windows in the next year or so. The bad news is that its growth does not look to be as explosive as some advocates might have hoped.

The predictions come from IDC and they reflect the fact that in the last few months Linux on the desktop has become a reality. It is now possible, for example, to buy a Linux-based PC (running LindowsOS) from Evesham. In the US, Wal-Mart sells machines based on Lindows, Mandrake Linux and others. But though Linux may have its foot in the door, taking the next step to becoming a mainstream success is proving a more difficult proposition.

What distinguishes Linux among its operating-system competitors is the way it is distributed: under its open-source licence, Linux can be modified and redistributed, as long as the modifications are made freely available to the developer community. Since the basic code is freely available, Linux can be distributed at rock-bottom prices or at no charge, but the licence also makes it more difficult for distributors to charge premium prices for proprietary technology.

Linux has been going strong in the server market since the dot-com boom, and has now picked up high-profile backers such as HP and IBM. A Butler Group study in October even predicted that Linux was likely to become the dominant server operating system by 2009, based on its success at eroding the Unix market.

But on the desktop, where good technology alone has not been known to prove popular, growth has remained slow. IDC says that Linux's share of paid shipments of the worldwide client operating-system market rose from 1.5 percent in 2000 to 1.7 in 2001, while Microsoft Windows grew from 92 to 94 percent in the same period. While this does not include the large numbers of free downloads common in the Linux world, IDC says it is significant.

One factor holding Linux back on the desktop is the lack of well-established applications, according to Dan Kusnetzky, IDC's vice president of system software. "Consumers and organisations select applications first and let that choice direct the choice of the operating environment," he said. "If, for example, a needed application is only available on Windows, the consumer or organisation will select Windows."

In the past year or so, some progress has been made towards providing Linux equivalents to common Windows applications: Ximian's Evolution mimics Outlook's look and feel, and is compatible with Exchange servers, for example, and Sun Microsystems' StarOffice can read and write Microsoft Office files. CodeWeavers' Crossover Office software even allows some Windows applications to be installed on a Linux machine.

But these solutions don't necessarily add up to desktop success, in Kusnetzky's view. "Organisations are still likely to select the most popular applications even though applications having similar capabilities exists," he argued.

And while some Linux distributions may run Windows applications -- including Lindows and Xandros, which incorporates Crossover Office -- users may find themselves without technical support if they take this route. "Are Lindows or Xandros going to be able to support Microsoft Office on Linux? I think not. Only Microsoft knows enough about how that suite works to support it," Kusnetzky said.

A year ago, it was widely thought that dissatisfaction with Microsoft and its draconian Licensing 6 policy would help drive users to alternative platforms, but this does not appear to have had much impact so far, according to industry observers. However, those who have not chosen to sign up for a new two to three year agreement with Microsoft may be eyeing alternatives during their next round of purchasing, experts say.

The good news is that businesses and consumers are showing an increasing interest in Linux on the desktop. For example Red Hat, the largest Linux distributor, was saying at the beginning of 2002 that it was not interested in desktop software, but changed its tune with the release of version 8 of its software. This included applications aimed at smoothing out the desktop user experience, including a feature called Bluecurve, which unified the look and feel of the two main desktop environments, KDE and Gnome.

Germany's SuSE has also pledged a desktop drive, and will begin incorporating Windows compatibility software. HP is planning to support desktops with Mandrake Linux, a distribution which has always had a focus on ease-of-use.

Most promising, however, may be the interest of governments in adopting Linux and other open-source software in order to stimulate local development and keep the software world from becoming too homogenous. Germany and France have begun using open source in various government branches, and the UK is also leaning in this direction. A report in October revealed that the US Department of Defense already heavily depends on various forms of open-source software.

IDC expects that Linux will become the No. 2 desktop OS in the next year or two, surpassing the Mac OS, and will continue to hold this rank for the remainder of the company's five-year forecast.

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