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Applications Are the Key

A look into the future of the Linux desktop

In this month's column, Dr. Migration takes a look at the Linux desktop from an applications point of view. Although widespread adoption of desktop Linux isn't a reality yet, the prognosis is good.

I recently wrote an article for LinuxWorld.com on a user-oriented Linux distribution coined UserLinux. In the article I discussed what the ideal noncommercial desktop Linux distribution would look like (www.linuxworld.com/story/37872.htm). The emphasis is on identifying features that would be attractive to the mass PC-user market. Bruce Perens, Linux evangelist, former leader of the Debian project (www.debian.org), and harbinger for UserLinux (www.userlinux.com), also added his comments, and this sparked a lively debate on what would constitute a distribution with mass appeal. This debate gave me a good idea of what PC users want from a Linux distribution, and it led me to reflect more on where desktop Linux is today and what needs to happen for its continued growth and success. There is simply no commercial product that compares to Linux's low-cost entry point and the variety of applications that can be added at no additional charge. Hence my favorite saying, "Linux is just a free ticket to a spectacular show." Linux on its own is great, but the supporting cast of Free/Libre Open Source Software, paired with the stable, extensible OS, makes it a powerful and affordable alternative to existing commercial solutions.

It's without debate that the idea of a free, community Linux desktop platform, under widespread use, is appealing to a huge contingent of PC users. There is an ongoing and heated discussion about what needs to happen for desktop Linux to become appealing to the mass market. Two areas of contention seem to arise. The first is usability, and the second is application availability.

Platform Usability
The Linux desktop has to evolve in the area of usability, and specifically configuration. Configuration includes hardware detection, which I must say has improved dramatically since I started using Linux as a desktop platform in the mid 1990s. But it still needs to improve; hopefully this will happen with hardware vendor support in addition to a strong community effort. Additionally, I have issues with docking and undocking my laptop, as I know many fellow users do. It's gotten to the point where I simply use my laptop and its own screen rather than my monitor because of the issues I've had with switching displays. I also find it easiest to reboot when I dock and redock so that the laptop and wireless card devices (versus the docking station input devices and network) can be rediscovered. I'm sure there are tools and procedures to make this all happen, but they aren't automatic or executable with a single button push. These features were available and worked flawlessly for me as a Windows 2000 laptop user. In this area, Linux still needs further work for the opera-ting system to see widespread acceptance, especially since earlier adopters are often the toughest customers.

Distribution vendors are solving usability problems and including this valuable work with their packaged versions of Linux. Also, despite widespread hardware vendor support for Linux, the community is still addressing driver support. I don't think it will be long before these hurdles are overcome. It is in the vested interest of companies like Mandrake, Sun, and Novell/ SUSE to solve these problems if they're truly going to be desktop Linux vendors (in my mind, desktop PCs and laptops are equally important). If there comes a day when these aren't inhibitors to desktop adoption of Linux, then what inhibitors will remain? The applications.

Linux Distributions and 'Shovelware'
Very few people go about looking for their ideal operating system. They don't often say, "I really need a cool operating system." Typically, they want to do something. That something may be accessing the Web for news or to do some shopping, sending e-mail to their friends, or writing a letter on a word processor. All these applications are of a task-based nature; they all do something.

The following are the most commonly needed applications, based on our readers' feedback.

  • E-mail applications
  • Web browser
  • Word processor
  • Games
  • Simple spreadsheets
  • Personal finance applications
  • Multimedia players to listen to music and to view movies (either downloaded or via DVD)
PC users new to Linux may be overwhelmed by their choices for meeting these needs. Also, once they make their choices they may have a learning curve to overcome, or in the case of e-mail, a migration issue.

The needs seem simple enough, so I looked at what applications are available, starting with the existing Linux installations in my lab. These include Mandrake 9.2, Red Hat 9.0, and Knoppix. Each comes with a cadre of applications that my friend Greg refers to as "Shovelware," in other words, the applications that the distribution providers shovel onto the distribution as a value add. No offense intended to the application makers or the distributions - my friend's point is simply this: Why do we need three or more browsers, five e-mail clients, and various other applications we won't use? Conversely, it's nice to have them preinstalled so that there are no snafus in the installation. Vendors can test for compatibilities and resolve conflicts between applications before users run into problems.

The ideal situation is the custom solution - the distribution can include a mechanism for the Linux user to select core applications and go from there, at installation time and throughout the lifetime of the installation. Today, many distributions already include many configuration options in their installer. For many years, Red Hat offered a workstation and server installation option depending on the user's need, but still there was a common template used by all users depending on the computer's intended use. Or you could pick your applications, but to do this you would be picking through thousands of applications - a daunting task. I've decided it's easier to just install the whole kitchen sink rather than risk forgetting something. If a new application comes out, I need to go through another process of downloading and installing from the Internet because the CD from my Linux distribution becomes outdated. This break in continuity, or switching to a second interface for updates, adds one more level of complexity. Red Hat has done a good job with their Red Hat Network (http://rhn.redhat.com), which supplies network updates for their Enterprise Linux offerings, however this is only available for Red Hat's Enterprise Linux. Lindows (www.lindows.com) seems to have gotten this formula right with their Click-N-Run solution for adding applications to their base distribution. The problem with this model is simply that it's distribution dependent. Ximian's Red Carpet has broadened its horizons a bit as well, but they also have selected a few select distros to support. The ideal solution, which I realize presents some hurdles, is a distro-independent updater and installation, backed commercially, so that user demand could dictate product direction.

Filling the Gaps
The problem I keep coming up against is the bridging of the gaps. It's an issue because many more people would make the move to Linux if they didn't have to leave those few critical applications behind. The ones that come to mind are the financial applications like Quicken and TurboTax, and the PIM/CRM applications like GoldMine, ACT!, and Outlook. Many organizations have invested heavily in proprietary applications to handle their business systems, and these applications run exclusively on Windows and would require significant investment to port to Linux. Despite this existing Windows application quandary, there are a couple of ways to fill those gaps and migrate to Linux. The first is to run the applications in a hosted environment. Another is to run the application locally in an emulator, or virtual machine.

Hosted Environments to Supplement the Linux Desktop
Some users of Windows applications choose to run their critical applications on a Windows Terminal Server. This solution allows the applications to be run on Windows server and then redisplayed over the network to their Linux PCs. The solution allows them to run the applications as they were intended but makes them portable. Linux users can connect to these Windows Terminal Servers using the rdesktop client (www.rdesktop.org). This isn't a bad idea but can be expensive. I think a better solution in this case is to run Windows on Linux through NeTraverse Terminal Server (www.netraverse.com/products/wts/), which allows the applications to be hosted on the server and then redisplayed using open source technology like X.11 or VNC. This solution still requires the Windows client licenses but gets the applications to run on the Linux platform. Also, it's the first step to weaning yourself from the Windows server platform.

Hosted applications are a double-sided coin. The upside is that the applications can be executed as the manufacturer intended and can be redisplayed to any network-connected PC. In addition, these applications can be administered centrally, which is advantageous to those users in a multi-user environment. In the corporate environment this solution makes sense, but unless the home user could purchase hosted applications through an application service provider that could be redisplayed to their PC, it seems impractical in the home-user environment.

Virtual Machines and Emulation
The other way to run Windows applications on the Linux desktop PC is by creating a situation in which the Windows applications can execute locally. I have spoken about this topic in the past and divided the solutions into the following three categories: virtualization, emulation, and integration.

Virtualization allows the installation of the whole Windows OS as a guest on the Linux OS. The solution that does this most completely is VMWare (www.vmware.com). The VMWare model provides a virtual computer to install the Windows operating system within. This solution is very popular in the server world for consolidating servers, but in the desktop world it may be overkill. It does require a fairly powerful PC to operate at reasonable speeds and is considerably more expensive than equally suitable solutions. It also requires a fully licensed copy of Windows to execute. However, the product has significant merit. VMWare is available for a retail price of $299 USD.

Other solutions provide an emulated Windows API so that Windows applications can be executed on Linux without the need for the native operating system (in this case Windows). CodeWeavers (www.codeweavers.com) offers a small set of productivity applications via a technology known as WINE (www.winehq.org). The advantages are that there's no need for a Windows license and that the files live locally on one file system. The disadvantages are that the number of applications supported via the method is very small and the configuration of applications to run natively on Linux can be challenging. Often the user does not enjoy the same fidelity of experience as compared to running natively or running a copy of Windows in the Linux environment.

Integration is the ability for Linux to comanage file systems, process, and other resources with Windows. The solution that best does this is Win4Lin (www.win4lin.com), which allows users to run Windows as an application on the Linux desktop. This solution is a good Linux citizen as it runs with minimal resource needs and adheres to the management systems available in Linux. It does however, like VMware, require a Windows license and Windows 95/98/ME media to install and run the software. Win4Lin is available for $89.99 USD.

As Linux adoption grows, these applications will have a lesser role in desktop Linux, but at this turning point in desktop computing they all provide important bridging technology. For some niche and legacy applications that do not warrant investment in porting, however, these solutions are a cost-effective way to ensure the applications are available to Linux users.

Distribution-Independent Application Installer
Now, are you ready for the killer app for Linux? It's the distribution- independent application installer. It doesn't exist today, but it should. So far there are a number of semi-solutions to one big problem. Most are distribution specific. Red Hat has the Red Hat Network, Lindows has the Click-N-Run warehouse, and Ximian tries to cater to a handful of distributions, including SUSE, Mandrake, and Red Hat. No one has solved the problem of taking a platform (Linux) and finding a vendor-neutral supplier to provide applications, especially for the home user of Linux. I think the technology exists, but it has yet to be executed in a way that allows it to proliferate into a wide audience of Linux desktop adopters. I believe this type of technology could accelerate Linux desktop adoption at a rate faster than that of the Linux server.

The following examples of common installation and application problems indicate the need for this type of service.

  • Browser plug-ins: This is my pet peeve. I'm always installing a new version of Linux on one of my lab machines. And, invariably, I am forced to go out and find the Java and Shockwave plug-ins for my browser. However, I am not locked into one browser. I am a fan of Mozilla; I always have been. Back in the early days of Netscape, I beta tested version .49B of Netscape and have used it ever since, though I have strayed into and out of Internet Explorer, always appreciating Netscape when I return. I also like to play with the variants of Mozilla, including Galeon and Firebird. When I do, what I would love is to just go to one page and download all the plug-ins I might need.
  • MP3, DVD, and movie playback: In some distributions this is downright painful. For example, in Red Hat I have MPlayer installed. It can play a few types of multimedia files, but technically you could be in violation of the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) if you try to use the community-provided methods for playing media you have already legally purchased. I commend Lindows, who has licensed their DVD player to allow users to legally play DVDs, solving both the legal and installation issues.
  • Library updates: Just as in Windows, there needs to be a common set of libraries used by applications. On Windows the problem is easily solved because Microsoft ships the libraries with the operating system. In the realm of the Linux OS, the vendors pick libraries a la carte and may choose to include only a common set of libraries in the public domain. If someone could include the right engine, and not just the engine to figure out what libraries are needed, and then give the user one-stop shopping to download, that would be great.
These are but a few examples of how a one-stop shopping solution for Linux would play well. The ability to find aggregated applications from a trusted source would overcome one of the final hurdles for widespread Linux adoption on the desktop.

In my mind the future of the Linux desktop is assured. It will become a widespread reality, with many of the factors contributing to success being financial. Other factors will include the introduction of high-quality applications that fit the needs of a large corps of PC users. For this to become a reality, a few critical events need to occur. More production-grade applications have to become available. These applications need to be able to be easily installed, as well as easy to use. This is no small feat given the need for supporting libraries, compilers, and the like to be universally available across Linux distributions. Additionally, these applications must reach a broad level of adoption where feedback and community support can ensure that they will be around for a considerable length of time. Many users, especially business users, will want to know that they will not be left in the cold before they make a commitment to Linux.

I like to think of this column as a look into the future rather than a call to action, as I think the call is being heeded. I would love to reflect back on these thoughts in the not-too-distant future and be able to say this was a foreshadowing of things to come.

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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Most Recent Comments
Chris Hubbell 02/24/04 02:06:36 PM EST

The other issue that will trip you on converting your friends who aren't clearly set on Windows is all of the web sites out there which expect Internet Explorer, and the sites which stream video (Quicktime, RealPlayer, etc.).

Yes, you can have your browser fake its OS in some cases if you are an advanced user. Yes, you can get beta-grade video plugins for the web (which thus far crash Mozilla almost as often as they work).

In the end you need to be careful about who you convert. A non-savvy user may attribute these faults to Linux inadequacies (it's a matter of perspective).

I think we still have many bridges to cross before desktop Linux is a real threat to Windows for the average user, but I look forward to that day with unchecked anticipation.

Ernest Rogers 02/20/04 12:52:42 AM EST

Something to consider.
Last year I convinced no less than a dozen of my friends to finally purchase their first PC. None of them would be able to give a reason for wanting to have Windows installed on their new system, other than that is what they see on most computers. If these same friends were given a choice of paying for windows and its installation, or just paying to have a much cheaper alternative installed, including some powerfull applications that they don't have to pay extra for, my bet would be they chose the less expensive option, especially after shelling out $400 - $500 bucks just for hardware.
Unfortunately, the store where I was able to get an affordable PC for them only offered Windows pre-installed, at almost full price.

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