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Linux on the desktop

Has Linux finally reached the point where it can start making serious inroads in corporations?

The Year for Linux on the Corporate Desktop. That was the title of Ross Chevalier’s keynote presentation at the recent NetworkWorld and LinuxWorld conference and trade show in Toronto.

Chevalier is the chief technology officer at Novell Canada Inc., which has become a big Linux backer. He argued Linux has finally reached the point where it can start making serious inroads on corporate desktops.

Is he right?

Linux is certainly a force to be reckoned with. A recent survey of 354 business technologists by the U.S. publication InformationWeek found nearly 60 per cent using Linux and other open-source software on servers in their organizations.

But its strength still lies largely on the server. Only 35 per cent of respondents to that survey were using Linux on desktop PCs, another 18 per cent said they were currently testing Linux on the desktop and another 10 per cent said they planned to try it in the next year.

On average, those organizations reported running or planning to run Linux on only 12 per cent of their PCs, versus 76 per cent running Windows XP, 2000 or NT.

One reason for that is the perception that Linux is less user-friendly than Windows. Chevalier spent most of his speech tackling this issue by showing off upcoming releases of Novell’s SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 and OpenOffice. It certainly looks nice. Two guys seated right behind me were oohing and aahing all through the presentation.

But two others in the crowd leaving the presentation were less impressed. The pretty user interface stuff is fine, I heard them saying, but there still aren’t enough applications for Linux.

Like it or not, the business world runs on Microsoft Office. That’s what people are used to. Software like OpenOffice can read and write Office file formats quite well, but people are used to using Office and they resist change.

Chevalier addressed this issue too, but it’s a tougher argument to answer.

Besides OpenOffice, Chevalier pointed to the ability to run Windows and Linux on the same machine using virtualization software like VMWare’s, or run Windows apps on a Windows server and make them available to Linux clients through software like Citrix Systems Inc.’s MetaFrame. And he referred to the Wine project, which is working on software to let Windows software run on Linux.

There was another session at LinuxWorld on Wine itself. I found the candor of the speaker — Ulrich Czekella, an independent consultant who helps companies with Windows-to-Linux migrations —refreshing. He said Wine is a work in progress. Some Windows applications won’t run on it, others will run but with some problems. It’s by no means perfect.

Czekella said commercial versions of Wine, like Crossover Office from Codeweaver, reduce the Wine support burden quite a lot. But you’re still not going to get perfect results. And ultimately, while there may be ways to get it to work, most businesses are going to hesitate as long as there’s any extra work involved.

Nonetheless, Linux is gaining. I think proclaiming 2006 the Year of Desktop Linux is optimistic, but I remember how every year from around 1985 to some time in the early 1990s was touted as the Year of the Local Area Network, and no one year ever earned the title — but LANs eventually became ubiquitous.