Desktop Linux and the enterprise

Late next month Ottawa’s Xandros Inc. will release the latest open source challenger to Windows on the desktop, a struggle that so far has netted the Linux industry negligible gains.

Xandros Desktop 4.0 will be followed in the summer by the North American release of Novell’s SuSe Linux Enterprise Desktop (the successor to Novell Linux Desktop 9), while towards the end of the year Red Hat Inc. will unveil Red Hat Desktop 5.

Open source resellers, solution providers and integrators will again do their best to persuade business users that the advantages of Linux on servers can be extended to their PCs.

But according to the latest research from Gartner, their efforts will be fruitless, at least for now.

In a study released this month Gartner operating system research director Mary Hubley wrote that many companies feel there is little reason to switch.

Windows 2000 and XP are stable, and support for them will last until 2010 and 2013 respectively.

More importantly, she asked in an interview, “who’s going to put Linux in when people need Microsoft applications? That’s what it comes down to . . . They still want Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access.

“You can get Linux alternative with OpenOffice.org, StarOffice, and they work really well for some people, but you are going to have problems with things like fonts.”

Okay, no one said six years ago when Linux emerged as a server alternative to other operating systems that the battle for the desktop would be easy.

But despite the efforts of many, the war isn’t going well.

Take Xandros, for example. Its software, based on the Debian distribution, used to be part of Corel when that company was in its Linux phase. Corel was forced to spin off the division in the face of the Microsoft juggernaut.

Obstacles
Aside from the lack of full compatibility with the latest versions of Office, desktop Linux suffers from having multiple distributions and a choice of two interfaces (KDE and Gnome).

Hubley is quick to point out that Linux is a solid, stable OS capable of running corporate desktops.

And the open source community is trying hard to create ways to co-exist with Windows where alternatives can’t be built.

The OpenDocument format – which holds out a promise to be a universal productivity application format – may blunt the power of Office, but not yet.

Hubley looked at translation layers for running Windows on Linux such as Wine and Codeweavers Crossover Office (included in Xandros Business Edition, expected to ship in May), and virtual machines such as VMWare. But, she concluded, each has problems including hits on performance.

These problems are keeping desktop Linux limited to technical workstations and other niches.

Still, the open source community plugs away. The latest addition is software called Xgl (from Xserver over OpenXL graphics), which will let developers add some whiz-bang to the desktop interface.

It takes advantage of 3D rendering chips to allow the creation of spinning windows, multiple desktop cubes, dancing menus or whatever the imagination calls for to entertain users.

Ross Chevalier, Novell Canada’s chief technology officer, notes these tricks are offered now in Apple’s OS X, and are being touted by Microsoft for its upcoming Vista release.

But he and others acknowledge that Xgl itself won’t spur business to abandon Windows.

Then again, he argued, in the short term that’s not the point.

Encourage customers
The channel should be encouraging customers to at least look at where Linux on the desktop might make sense, he argues. Users who don’t rely heavily on productivity applications – such as those in call centres – should be candidates.

Novell figures this year many companies will refresh their PCs, making it a perfect time for Linux partners to approach them.

Recently he’s given demos of the upcoming SuSe Enterprise Desktop release to businesses “and without exception no one who attended said there was no reason they shouldn’t at least take a look.”

Similarly, Xandros is running a Linux challenge on its Web site to encourage businesses to experiment with the application.

Adoption could also be encouraged by a movement to bring all the commercial Debian-based Linux desktop distributions together, he added.

Desktop adoption is “more a question of when than if,” insists Stephen Harris, Xandros’ vice-president of communications.

Jonathan Blandford, engineering manager of the Red Hat Desktop team, said the spread of Linux on corporate desktops in Europe is encouraging and believes it will pick up soon in North America.

The upcoming releases will emphasize the different goals of the manufacturers.

Novell spent most of its time honing the interface on the new SuSe Enterprise Desktop, with Chevalier candidly admitting the goal is to make it as close to Windows as possible so Microsoft users will feel familiar with it.

It includes OpenOffice 2.0, which supports many VisualBasic macros, and an e-mail client that connects to Exchange.

Red Hat Desktop 5 will concentrate on usability, printing and hardware support.

Xandros Desktop 4 will come in three boxed versions: Standard, Deluxe (with enhanced security and multimedia features) and Business, which will have administration tools.

Despite the obstacles, Chevalier said VARs who sell desktop Linux should be proactive, encouraging companies to examine the possibilities in small steps.

Offer to help customers set up a proof of concept with a group of employees, Chevalier advised, followed by a pilot. Both will help identify groups that can benefit from desktop Linux.

“You’d have to be nuts not to at least look at it and see where it would fit into your organization,” said Chevalier.

Businesses, however, don’t think they’re looney.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of ITWorldCanada.com and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including ITBusiness.ca and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@] soloreporter.com

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