Will Linux be a hit or miss on the corporate desktop?
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So far this year, the buzz about Linux in enterprise networks has focused on servers and embedded systems, with the growth of Linux severs being most heralded. According to IDC, a research firm based in Framingham, Mass., Linux was the fastest-growing server operating system last year, with a 93% growth rate over the year before. Linux was the second most-shipped operating system in 1999 after Windows NT, capturing 24% of new licenses shipped.
As for the embedded market, Linux has emerged as an ideal platform for network appliances, because the system can be modified to handle specialized, dedicated tasks very well. Companies such as Cobalt Networks, Picazo and Progressive Systems have announced Linux-based appliances, ranging from Web servers to PBXs to firewalls.
But what of the open source hacker's dream of "Linux on every desktop?"
Sure, Linux on the desktop has become more accessible than ever, with colorful, shrink-wrapped boxes of Caldera, Red Hat and Corel Linux now available at places like CompUSA. However, analysts have said that Linux's growth in the enterprise will be limited to the macro and micro areas of network servers and embedded operating systems.
According to IDC, Linux currently runs on only 4% of U.S. desktops. The hold Microsoft Windows has on the desktop market will remain strong, analysts say, despite such factors as Microsoft's antitrust problems and the surging popularity of Linux.
Even some Linux executives are skeptical of their product's desktop future. Recently, SuSE CEO Roland Dyroff downplayed Linux's future on desktops. Dyroff said, "given the lack of applications available, we really can't claim it as being competitive on the desktop yet."
A recent survey by Survey.com gives more hope for Linux desktops. According to the survey of 1,640 enterprise network managers, open source operating systems are used on 10% of desktops, with the number jumping to a surprising 23% of enterprise desktops by 2002.
Despite the mix of numbers being thrown around, two important factors that will determine the success of Linux as an enterprise client desktop are: a standardized, easy-to-use graphical user interface (GUI) and available applications.
One company that is working to make Linux more user friendly is Palo Alto Eazel, which is designing a next-generation file management system and user interface to run on top of the Linux kernel. According to Eazel's Web site, the company's goal is to bring Linux to the masses and "do it in a way that appeals to today's Linux users and to mere mortals."
The company was founded by a group of former Apple executives, and is allied with the Gnome project, which has been doing extensive Linux desktop environment development for several years. Eazel is due to have a product out by the middle of this year. With an intuitive, icon-based file management environment, Eazel is hoping its user interface will be an improvement over the two current Linux GUIs, Gnome and KDE, and will help standardized the look and feel of Linux for "regular" users. For enterprise mangers who have already embraced Linux on the server side, this development will be worth keeping an eye on.
On the applications side, several office productivity suites have been available for some time, such as Sun's StarOffice suite and KOffice for the KDE desktop. Corel has also ported its office products, such as WordPerfect, over to Linux to complement its own distribution of the operating system. While there have been recent rumors (started by Linux Care Vice President Arthur Tyde) that Microsoft is working on a port of MS Office to Linux, Microsoft officials deny this.
While Linux may never supplant Windows as the industry-standard desktop, there should be plenty of opportunity for Linux PCs in enterprise nets in the future.
Phil Hochmuth is a Network World Senior Writer and a former systems integrator. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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