In the next release of its Linux desktop product, Novell plans to include richer graphics, integrated search and support for a broader array of Microsoft file formats, but analysts doubt the updates - though significant - will spark broad adoption of the open source operating system on corporate PCs.
"I don't expect this or any other point distribution release to significantly accelerate desktop Linux adoption," says Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata. "Desktop Linux uptake is controlled far more by broad issues like application availability on Linux rather than micro-features present or absent in a given version of SuSE or Red Hat."
Still, analysts agree that updates to Novell's SuSE Linux Enterprise Desktop, which is scheduled to be released this summer, are important steps in making the open source operating system a viable alternative in corporate environments.
Updates include an integrated desktop search tool called Beagle; support for Visual Basic macros so users can open and save Excel pivot tables and spreadsheets in OpenOffice.org; support for the OpenDocument format; XGL graphics, which Novell recently contributed to the X.org project, to provide a more interactive user interface; and better support for standard network and printing protocols to provide plug-and-play compatibility for external devices and easy connectivity to third-party systems such as Active Directory and Microsoft Exchange.
In addition, the desktop product is integrated with Novell ZENworks Linux Management, providing automated remote management. The cost of the SuSE Linux Enterprise Desktop hasn't been released, but Novell says it will be priced similarly to the current Novell Linux Desktop offering, which costs $50 per client device.
Novell is positioning the product - which the company plans to release around the same time as the next version of the SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 operating system - as the first Linux desktop product appropriate for workers who need access to a variety of applications and data types.
Until now, Linux largely has been relegated to niche desktop deployments primarily for transactional workers in retail locations, for example, who use just one or two applications daily.
"We've sold a lot of desktops. But the majority have been for specialized uses, such as cash registers, client/server support devices heavily linked to back-end systems and applications," says Greg Mancusi-Ungaro, director of Linux and open source at Novell, who says the company conducted hundreds of hours of tests with users in developing the product's new features.
"Now, with Microsoft Vista looming and companies having to decide whether they are going to use Vista, they have a choice," he says. "I think the launch of Vista will drive people to look closely at where Linux is."
Corporate buyers may take a look, but analysts say Novell and other Linux desktop distributors such as Red Hat have a tough road ahead of them. For one thing, they're competing in a market where Microsoft holds a more than 90% share. The cost and complexity of moving employees off a well-established platform continues to be the biggest hurdle to Linux desktop adoption, says Al Gillen, research director, system software, at IDC.
Those costs include retraining workers and IT staff, and migrating data and applications.
"Each generation of the Linux desktop gets better and better. I would argue that they are at least good enough and maybe more than good enough for corporate users," Gillen says. "It's not just a question of whether it's good enough. It's a question of whether it's cost-effective."