The Year Ahead: Will we see Linux on the desktop?

Windows remains the dominant desktop application, but Linux is making steady progress in its battle to win over mainstream PC users
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor

Another year has gone by -- an eternity in software-development terms -- and it's time once again for PC users to ask themselves: is Linux ready for the desktop?

A few recent factors may set off this line of thinking, including the hostile reaction to restrictive new software licence terms from Microsoft and new developments in the Linux world. But experts say there are a number of factors aside from the quality of the software itself that can affect the practicality of making the switch.

For the past few years, Linux has been riding a wave of hype that originated in the middle of the dot-com boom, and had to do with the surprisingly quick penetration of the open-source operating system into the Web server market. The hype has disappeared, and taken many open-source start-ups along with it, but Linux evangelists say the case for the operating system is stronger than ever. "Everybody has been saying that Linux is over because the dot-com boom is over. But Linux predates the dot-com hype," said Jacques le Marois, president of French Linux distributor MandrakeSoft.

A growing part of that case is a negative factor: the seemingly unlimited power of Microsoft in the operating system market. After apparently brushing aside the antitrust challenge from the US Justice Department, the software giant released Windows XP, which to many appeared to place new burdens on desktop users while laying the foundations for a Microsoft-dominated Internet infrastructure. At the same time, enterprises protested at being compelled to accept new licence terms for Microsoft software that pressured them into more frequent software upgrades.

To many, a sane response seems to be to consider alternatives, with Linux foremost among them. A recent study from IDC found that 15 percent of Microsoft business users were concerned enough about the new licence terms to take a look at Linux or other operating systems. "Although 15 percent is not a huge component of Microsoft's customer base, it is never good to have unhappy customers," noted IDC analyst Al Gillen.

There have also been several significant advances in the Linux world that may give users some hope.

One was the release of new distributions from the three major Linux companies, the US's Red Hat, MandrakeSoft and Germany's SuSE. All three were praised for reaching new levels of ease-of-use, especially in installation -- an issue most Windows users never have to face.

The new distributions include updated versions of standard software, like desktop environments, browsers and email programs, that have been dramatically improved in the past few months, and which are now much more convenient for those used to Windows and Macintosh systems. Of particular note are the KDE and Gnome desktop environments and Ximian, which runs on top of Gnome and streamlines things even further.

A few critical Linux applications have recently reached milestone releases. Galeon, a Web browser based on Netscape's Gekko rendering engine, has received good reviews and recently hit its 1.0 release. The Opera Web browser has been around for some time, but with its new 6.0 release the software has begun to win new converts.

StarOffice, the open-source productivity suite from Sun Microsystems, is in beta testing on its 6.0 release, which observers say is at last a credible replacement for Microsoft Office.

Perhaps most significant is Ximian's Evolution, a Microsoft Outlook clone that hit its 1.0 release in early December after a long development period. While other alternatives exist for productivity and Web browsing, Evolution will be the first Linux email software that can connect to Microsoft Exchange servers. Many Linux users still have to run Windows purely for email.

For those looking to run Linux as their platform but stick with certain Windows applications, a startup called Lindows is aiming to produce such a hybrid. The company will sell version 1.0 of its software in the first quarter of 2002; it's a distribution of Linux with some proprietary software added on, and fine-tuned for running Windows applications for which there is not yet a full-fledged open-source equivalent, such as Microsoft Word.

For many types of applications, of course, Linux already has outstanding applications, such as the GIMP image manipulation program and a huge library for software development. But application availability is still the major consideration for most users.

"Applications are the key to success on the desktop and many of the most popular applications are available on any operating system you'd want -- as long as it's Windows," said Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of systems software at IDC.

And where it comes to breaking into the Microsoft-controlled desktop market, good technology isn't the only requirement, Linux gurus admit. Every operating system has its quirks, and short of turning Linux into a Windows clone, a learning curve will be unavoidable. And while anyone having trouble with Windows or the Macintosh OS can usually find a neighbor's kid to help them out, that's not yet the case with Linux.

"We will have to get people to change their habits," says Mandrake's le Marois. "But they're not going to change in the next week or month. It's a long-term process."

See ZDNet UK's Christmas & New Year Special for our look at the tech world in 2001, and what's coming up in 2002, plus a shopping guide with reviewers' best buys.

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