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Moving to the Linux Business Desktop

Talking desktops with the Linux chef

Marcel Gagné is probably best known for his three-time award-winning monthly column called "Cooking with Linux," where he impersonates a French chef serving up fine Linux fare and (naturellement) wine. Here he shares his views on the Linux Desktop.

Tell us about your latest book, Moving to the Linux Business Desktop, why you wrote it, and who you see using it.
Moving to the Linux Business Desktop expresses my belief in the capabilities of the modern Linux desktop - a mature, powerful, stable, and secure personal computing environment. Pretty much everything you expect from a corporate desktop is available on the Linux desktop. Furthermore, the modern Linux desktop is also friendly and easy to use, with a little guidance. That's what I intend to provide with the book, of course. By using Linux desktops, businesses and organizations of every size can free themselves from the licensing hassles and high costs of proprietary software. In the process, they can reap the added benefits of increased security and stability. I wrote Moving to the Linux Business Desktop to help make that transition as easy as possible.

In it I show people how to install and run Linux, browse the Internet, send and receive e-mail, use text and video chat and conferencing, scan and edit images, write documents and spreadsheets, create slide presentations, and more. In short, I show you how to replace your Windows desktops with Linux desktops. Using thin-client software from the Linux Terminal Server Project (which I cover in the book), it's possible to deploy dozens, even hundreds of Linux desktops without having to install each and every one of them.

Your earlier writing dealt primarily with server-related tools. Lately, you seem to be shifting your attention to desktop apps. How would you respond?
When I started writing about Linux, it pretty much meant writing about servers and server applications. I started mentally shifting my focus somewhat around the time that I started using Linux as my desktop of choice - back in 1996. It wasn't until the release of the first KDE desktop, however, that I really thought "Hey, Linux has arrived on the desktop!" Granted, I may have been a little optimistic, but the evolution of the desktop had truly taken a turn.

I suppose that in some ways, my writing has evolved along with Linux. Linux's great strength as well as its first broad acceptance by the industry was in the server world. With many thousands of talented developers worldwide continuing to work on Linux distributions and its associated software packages, the natural evolution has been to the desktop. Now, 13 years after Linus Torvalds released his first Linux kernel, Linux distributions provide polished, powerful, and highly usable desktops ready to take on many enterprises from government institutions to small businesses to large megacorporations.

Now, I haven't abandoned or turned my back on the server. After all, in mentioning thin clients, I'm bringing up server-side programs and these too are covered in the new book, including mail servers, Web servers, LDAP implementations, DNS, NFS servers, and a whole lot more.

What do you think of Linux's potential in the desktop market?
The potential for the Linux desktop is almost embarrassing. Linux desktops are already better, cleaner, and more powerful than anything in the Windows world. Yes, this an opinion, but I honestly believe there's nothing in their product line to compete with my KDE 3.2 desktop (and KDE 3.3 is just hitting FTP servers now). But I digress?with equivalent or better applications delivered at a much lower cost and better security, Linux is extremely attractive. Using thin-client technologies (like the Linux Terminal Server Project's software), large-scale Linux desktop deployments become much easier since you can even bypass the installation procedure.

What do you see as areas of improvement to make Linux more widely used? Is it improvements in distro installation, application usability, etc?
At this stage of the game, it's primarily about getting the word out there and getting more desktops installed. Installing a modern Linux distribution is, for the most part, easier than any version of Windows out there. The one and only reason that installing Windows seems easier is that most people never install Windows. It comes preinstalled on their PCs.

The problems with Linux have less to do with usability than with market penetration, preinstalled systems, availability of boxed software such as games (not a concern with most businesses), and commercial drivers. All of these things are becoming less of a problem as time goes on and vendors stop to consider Linux when designing hardware and software.

What do you see as the essential applications for Linux desktops?
I suppose that depends on your definition of essential :-). My 13-year-old nephew and his mother (my sister) are currently at odds on this definition. In a business environment, however, there are classic tools that are important today and are going to remain essential for some time. These include a Web browser, e-mail client, and office package. For most people, the latter focuses primarily on two applications: the word processor and the spreadsheet.

Tell us about one-to-one mapping from a Windows to a Linux desktop for day-to-day office applications.
When I talk to people about switching from Windows to Linux desktops, I'm always prepared to accept that this change isn't necessarily as smooth as I think it can be. For many organizations, migrating to Linux doesn't pose any more of a serious challenge than upgrading from one version of Windows to another. There's a learning curve, but it's not particularly steep. Still, there is a comfort factor at work and this is where I use what I call "transitional" applications.

Transitional applications are programs that were either written for Linux and ported to Windows or where there was always an equivalent version. The programs I am thinking of are things like Mozilla for Web browsing; Thunderbird for electronic mail; OpenOffice.org for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations; and GAIM for instant messaging. None of these require the user to give up Windows entirely but each one provides real benefits and improvements over their current software. Mozilla and Thunderbird both provide better security (Thunderbird even has spam control built in) and a better user experience. OpenOffice.org is an excellent and free replacement to Microsoft Office that can save even a small office thousands of dollars. GAIM provides excellent multi-protocol support so that you don't need an IM client for MSN, one for Yahoo!, one for Jabber, and so on.

Finally, when users are ready to move to Linux, they'll find their old, familiar applications waiting for them. The learning curve, then, is reduced to almost nothing.

What is your opinion regarding wide Linux adoption for desktop applications in other countries?
I have mixed feelings about this. It's truly exciting to see places like Munich, São Paulo, Vienna, Paris, Rome, the region of Extramadura in Spain, Thailand, and other parts of Asia (to name a few) embracing Linux on the desktop. Given the amount of activity and excitement regarding Linux desktop deployments in other countries, it's kind of sad to see how little is happening in North America, particularly the United States. This isn't to say that nothing is happening here, but it's happening very slowly. Of course (and without sounding too much like a conspiracy theorist), there is a great deal of negative press aimed at Linux and open source deployments through litigious means and various forms of propaganda (fear, uncertainty, and doubt).

Do you have any plans for new books?
Plans? Sure, there are always plans. Unfortunately, I can't really say anything about them right now. It's all very hush hush, you know.

About Marcel Gagné
Marcel Gagné has written three books on Linux including the bestselling Moving to Linux: Kiss the Blue Screen of Death Goodbye! His third book, Moving to the Linux Business Desktop, was due in stores September 2004. Meanwhile, his highly acclaimed 2001 Linux System Administration: A User's Guide is still considered one of the best books on the subject. As a technology columnist, Marcel has written hundreds of articles for various publications.

More Stories By Ibrahim Haddad

Ibrahim Haddad is a member of the management team at The Linux Foundation responsible for technical, legal and compliance projects and initiatives. Prior to that, he ran the Open Source Office at Palm, the Open Source Technology Group at Motorola, and Global Telecommunications Initiatives at The Open Source Development Labs. Ibrahim started his career as a member of the research team at Ericsson Research focusing on advanced research for system architecture of 3G wireless IP networks and on the adoption of open source software in telecom. Ibrahim graduated from Concordia University (Montréal, Canada) with a Ph.D. in Computer Science. He is a Contributing Editor to the Linux Journal. Ibrahim is fluent in Arabic, English and French. He can be reached via http://www.IbrahimHaddad.com.

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