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June 30, 2006 • Vol.28 Issue 26
Page(s) 30 in print issue

Is It Time For Linux?
Depending On Your Situation, It Just Might Be
Many in the Linux world believe that Linux desktops can easily replace Microsoft Windows for certain uses. They also admit that the Linux desktop may not be a solution for all Windows users, but they firmly believe that they are making progress toward that goal.

Commercial Linux distributions, or distros as they’re called, such as Novell SUSE and Xandros Desktop OS, allow Linux users to log in to Windows domains, use printers, and even run macros in Microsoft Office documents. While other popular open-source Linux distros, such as Fedora Core and Ubuntu, may not have all these features by default, in certain instances, they can do more than hold their own against Windows. (For a listing of popular Linux distros, visit www.distrowatch.com.)

John Cherry, initiative manager for the Desktop Linux working group at Open Source Development Labs, agrees, “For those market segments where the Linux-based applications exist to solve user problems, Linux can not only hold its own but provide a more reliable and less expensive alternative to a Windows desktop.”

Where The Linux Desktop Works

Jeff Waugh of the GNOME project, a Linux desktop environment, believes there are three great cases where Linux desktops are gaining acceptance. First, desktop Linux is being used by technical users such as systems administrators, software developers, engineers, and scientists. Secondly, both Waugh and Cherry say that transactional and single-purpose systems, such as point-of-sale or call center terminals, are being converted to Linux desktops. Often the worker will not know which operating system is running on his workstation because he is only exposed to the application interface, Cherry notes.

Finally, Waugh says that Linux desktops should be used for basic business or home desktop purposes, especially when users only require an Internet browser, an office suite, and an email client.

Working In A Windows World

According to Cherry, perhaps the fastest growing group of Linux desktop users is office workers who require basic office software. Their needs can be met using applications, including the Firefox Internet browser (getfirefox.com), Evolution (www.gnome.org
/projects/evolution) or Thunderbird (www.mozilla.com/thunderbird) email clients, and office suites such as OpenOffice (www.openoffice.org), he says. “In the past two years, critical open-source applications in these productivity areas have shown incredible growth and maturity,” Cherry says.

Many businesses are seriously investigating Linux on the desktop as an alternative to Windows and Microsoft Office, says Lucia Krinsky, Novell senior manager, product marketing SUSE Linux Enterprise. According to Krinsky, these firms are also looking for alternatives that lower costs, increase their business agility, and leverage depreciated equipment.

Stephen E. Harris of Xandros says products such as CrossOver Office (www.codeweavers
.com; found in Novell SUSE and Xandros Desktop OS) allow Linux desktop users to continue to use Windows applications. Harris and Krinsky say their distros also contain software that aids in the use, editing, and conversion of Microsoft Office macros to macros used by OpenOffice.

No Windows Wannabes

Rather than match Windows feature for feature, Linux desktop environment developers are striking out on their own.

“The GNOME Project has long held the view that being a ‘cheap imitation’ is not in the best interests of our users, or ourselves,” Waugh says. According to Waugh, studies of the GNOME desktop have shown that look-alike systems actually make user migration and training more expensive and less successful.

Aaron J. Seigo, a full-time developer for the KDE desktop environment, says the Linux desktop’s greatest strength is found in its open standards, such as the Open Document Format, which is used by different open-source office suites. Such open standards enable software written by different people to work together, he notes.

“This interoperability, which we back up with actual deliverables and actions, as opposed to the largely in-name-only approach taken by Microsoft, allows the open-source desktop to work just fine in an environment where working with other Windows, Mac, or Unix systems is a requirement,” Seigo says.

Reluctance To Adopt

Robert Whetsel, lead architect of RavenSong Open Technologies, has seen IT staff’s reluctance to adopt the Linux desktop. Whetsel is also a Fedora Core global ambassador and a member of that distro’s steering committee. Fedora Core is a Linux desktop distro derived from Red Hat Linux. “The Windows folks that we work with leave the Linux up to us,” Whetsel says. "The perception is that [Linux] is a very difficult operating system to set up with unlimited opportunities to misconfigure.” This is untrue of the supported Linux distros and the abundance of online Linux documentation, he says.

Krinsky says, “We hear more often, ‘Why would I want to add the additional overhead to my IT staff to maintain two OS environments?’ The answer to this is that you need to recognize the savings from Linux over time.” According to Krinsky, the more Linux desktops you bring in, the greater the savings. Both Krinsky and Harris say the central management, installation, and administration tools in their Linux distros streamline administration tasks for IT staff and make them more productive.

Cherry says the growing Linux desktop market will itself spur growth. “As desktop Linux marketshare increases, the support lag for new devices will decrease, and more vendors will port their applications to Linux, resulting in a snowball effect for Linux adoption.”

by Bill Hayes


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