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The Linux Desktop Marches On

There was a time when you couldn't shut me up about the Linux desktop

There was a time when you couldn't shut me up about the Linux desktop. I was a fanatic. In 2000, I made the switch to a full-time virus-free Linux desktop and weeks of crash-free computing. I was a zealot. However, I did suffer from a few of the alternative operating systems shortcomings. My preferred desktop vendor deemed my Linux laptop1 unsupported, so if I ever had a problem, I had to boot into Windows to receive assistance. When someone sent me a macro-laden spreadsheet, I was forced to run Excel within a virtualized Windows instance2 to read the document as intended. Finally, when it came to wireless, I suffered a multitude of connection problems. While I loved the speed, the stability, and the security, it lacked convenience.

In the fall of 2006, I sold out; I flipped to another operating system - Mac OS X. I still had a bash shell, UNIX stability, and many of the benefits of my Linux desktop, but I also got manufacturer support for peripherals (specifically my EVDO broadband card to which I have become addicted) and support for my operating system. I didn't go cold turkey; in fact I continued to run a Windows and an Ubuntu Linux virtual machine on my desktop thanks to Parallels. I justified my move to OS X as an open source-inspired operating system3 owing its lineage to BSD. At the heart of my move was a combination of a need for applications and for support for a number of peripherals required for my day job. However, I think I might have acted to quickly.

Despite my personal sellout, I have become even more bullish on the Linux desktop than ever before. You see since my acquisition of a shiny, silver MacBook Pro, the world of the Linux desktop has changed. First, and foremost, Ubuntu - the wildly popular Linux desktop - has come on like gangbusters in the last two years. In January 2006, I published a book4 offering advice for business users on migrating to Linux desktops. I meticulously spelled out all the advantages - stability, security, low cost - and warned of pitfalls - application availability and manufacturer hardware support. In that time I talked about Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Novell SuSE Linux, Debian, Linspire, Xandros, and a few others but made little, if any, mention of Ubuntu. Shortly thereafter I started using Ubuntu, and since then I can't think of single conversation on the Linux desktop where I haven't mentioned the community-driven, financially backed Canonical creation.

On May 1 2007, Dell5, through a partnership with Canonical, the company that sponsors Ubuntu, announced that they would be shipping desktop and notebook products with Ubuntu 7.04. This was a big coup for desktop Linux as this is not Dell's only desktop Linux offering, but pre-installed Linux laptops also implies support for all included hardware from the manufacturer. That's a huge step forward in desktop Linux adoption. Many organizations want to procure their desktop and laptops from a single source. Now, at least those that use Dell can procure both Windows and Linux laptops from a single source. Availability in existing supply channels, in my opinion, is critical for corporate adoption that progress has been made through this deal.

Another point of encouragement is the high-profile philanthropic desktop Linux program - One Laptop per Child (OLPC). OLPC is as much an education initiative as one for Linux desktop adoption. This project aspires to put low-cost computers into the hands of children in developing countries, giving them access to online learning. On May 12, 2007, Uruguay President Vasquez inaugurated the first laptop school in Villa Cardal where 150 children received OLPC laptops. Over the course of the upcoming years, the goal is to put Linux laptops into the hands of children throughout the world. Should OLPC be successful, they will put millions of Linux computers into hands, increasing the ranks of open source users substantially.

In addition, based on lessons that they learned while partnering with the OLPC project, Red Hat launched a new desktop product on May 9, 2007: the Red Hat Global Desktop, a new commercial client operating system. This was a divergence from former Red Hat Linux desktops that consistently mirrored the Red Hat server products. The Red Hat CTO ushered in the new desktop product saying, "Users, requirements, and technologies have changed so dramatically over the past few years that the traditional one-size-fits-all desktop paradigm is simply exhausted. Our strategy is to deliver technologies that are specifically appropriate to these varied constituents, all based on open standards." In addition to this new product, Intel announced that they would, in partnership with Red Hat, offer pre-certified, cost-effective PCs in Intel's reseller channel running the new desktop Linux product.

A final encouraging note is the emergence of cross-distribution application vendors. Specifically an offering announced by Linspire in January to bring one-click deployment of Linux applications to not only their own distributions, Linspire and Freespire, but also Debian, Fedora, OpenSuSE, and Ubuntu. This is an interesting step as it eases adoption of open source and commercial applications uniformly across Linux distributions. It also provides a legal way for desktop users to download commercial codecs for playing Windows Multimedia files and solves other problems associated with delivering commercial or proprietary applications to open source platforms. While I am a fan of Linspire, the truly interesting point is the emergence of cross-distribution desktop vendors. This would almost be analogous to having Windows Update work for Mac OS and Solaris as well as Windows.

My prediction is not that there is an upcoming flood of desktop Linux users. Nor am I trying to position Linux as a David to the Goliath we know as Microsoft. What I do know is that Linux will continue to improve and become a viable alternative to today's mainstream desktops; that support from companies like Red Hat, Dell, Intel, and Canonical will cause slow and steady expansion into the developed and the developing world.

Other Links
• Ubuntu: www.ubuntu.com
• Parallels: www.parallels.com
• Linspire: www.linspire.com
• One Laptop Per Child: www.laptop.org

Endnotes

  1. At this point I was using a Dell Inspirion 9100 running SUSE Linux.
  2. I would typically run Windows 98, with Microsoft Office from within Win4Lin. I was COO of Win4Lin Inc. at that time.
  3. Mac OS X release 10.0 Cheetah was released in March 2001; it was based substantially on the BSD operating system.
  4. Windows to Linux Business Migration by Mark R. Hinkle. Charles River Media, January 2006.
  5. Announcement was made via Direct2Dell Blog - http://direct2dell.com/one2one/archive/2007/05/01/13147.aspx

More Stories By Mark R. Hinkle

Mark Hinkle is the Senior Director, Open Soure Solutions at Citrix. He also is along-time open source expert and advocate. He is a co-founder of both the Open Source Management Consortium and the Desktop Linux Consortium. He has served as Editor-in-Chief for both LinuxWorld Magazine and Enterprise Open Source Magazine. Hinkle is also the author of the book, "Windows to Linux Business Desktop Migration" (Thomson, 2006). His blog on open source, technology, and new media can be found at http://www.socializedsoftware.com.

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