Linux desktop vendors show worthy alternatives

The Linux desktop

Vista be damned. Novell, Red Hat and Ubuntu are showing the world that Linux is getting its desktop house in order.

Novell made its SUSE Linux Enterprise 10 desktop available in July, Ubuntu shipped a new version of its Debian-based distribution a few weeks ago and Red Hat will release its Enterprise 5.0 version early next year.

All come with the corporate staples – e-mail clients, Web browsers and office productivity applications – and with pleasing, easy-to-use interfaces. Installations have been simplified, and all sport networking hooks to back-end systems. The result is a Linux desktop ready for corporate computing.

And obviously Microsoft is noticing as evidenced by last week’s historic partnership with Novell focused on Windows/Linux interoperability for both the server and desktop.

The agreement lends credibility to a shift among the Linux vendors away from a hostile takeover mentality to a more pragmatic approach of offering a smart alternative based on use case.

Reality checks boundless optimism

Regardless, there is still a tough nut to crack as Linux client operating systems have hovered around 2% of market share for the past three years, according to IDC. In fact, gains in that period have been micro-percentages that are too small to consider when factoring in margin of error, says Al Gillen, an IDC analyst. And projections out to 2009 show Linux with only a 2.8% share, but Gillen says that could change given the Linux advances and the chance that Microsoft’s product activation initiative and licensing models could alienate customers.

Desktop conversions are a tricky business, Gillen says. “The problem is that 75% to 85% of users are just too committed to the Windows desktop and it is hard and expensive to move away.” He says the Linux desktop is arguably ready for prime time, “but the challenge is to find converts.”

They are out there, however.

At, nearly 70% of the online retailer’s 200 or so desktops are Linux, including multi-user machines stationed in the company’s warehouse.

In fact, if a user wants a Windows desktop they better have a good excuse because the standard issue is Linux. Those getting Windows typically need to support Excel macros.

“People have to justify Windows to get it and even then I challenge them a bit,” says CTO Dave Jenkins. He sees Linux being a viable Windows alternative.

The notion is aided by major vendors such as IBM and Sun who are moving on the desktop. IBM, for example, released earlier this year a Notes client for Linux desktops.

And while no pragmatist in the Linux community will use the phrase “desktop replacement,” confidence is growing on the development efforts from Novell, Red Hat, Ubuntu and a myriad of other commercial Linux desktops from Xandros to Linspire.

Broken promises?

A driver may be the broken promises of Microsoft’s Vista, which ships Nov. 30 after five years of development and will arrive with only a percentage of its original marquee features.

“Vista has reopened the buying decision,” says Justin Steinman, director of product marketing for Linux at Novell. “Customers are saying, if I have to do this, what are my other choices. Our strategy is not to take out Microsoft; our goal is present alternatives to Microsoft.”

And Novell thinks it has a strong alternative in SUSE Enterprise Linux 10.

The desktop has an Office suite built off the Open Office project, and includes the Firefox browser, Gaim instant messaging client, Beagle desktop search engine, Xen virtualization and the Evolution e-mail and calendaring client that integrates with Microsoft Exchange Server.

Perhaps more important to corporate IT executives, SUSE 10 integrates with Microsoft’s Active Directory and includes a management infrastructure built around ZenWorks.

And the integration story got better last week with the announcement of Microsoft and Novell’s partnership, in which the companies promised to focus on interoperability between Microsoft’s Office and Open Office, which ships with Novell’s desktop software. Microsoft also plans to contribute to some open source projects focused on Office file formats.

While users like what the developments they’re seeing, the decision is complex for even veteran open source converts.

“Our desktops are too deeply embedded in the Microsoft world for us to consider [a Linux] deployment,” says David Whiles, director of IS at Midland (Texas) Memorial Hospital. Whiles, who has worked with Linux for 10 years, recently deployed a clustered open source Electronic Medical Records application – a $7.1 million commitment to open source and Linux. He also runs Web and e-mail servers on Linux.

Some observers think overseas organizations will jump before U.S. companies.

“Markets such as Brazil, Russia, India and China seem ripe because you might see more of it in government or in specific organizations reacting to mandates,” says Dana Gardner, principal analyst of Interarbor Solutions. “The economics of [the Linux Desktop] in the U.S. makes more sense in small to medium-size businesses where you can give users a solution or service-based IT.”

Linux is ripe

Gardner says that certain situations are ripe for Linux to make inroads. “There is an opportunity for rich Internet applications to become predominant as people use them in a controlled environment with a browser on a Linux desktop that has full networking capabilities. Certainly that has a lot of potential and cost efficiencies vs. a full scale Vista PC.”

That is the approach Jenkins uses at, where the Linux desktop is the platform for an open source, browser-based ERP system called Interchange. But Jenkins adds there are other factors, such as the maturity of Open Office and a Linux desktop interface that no longer looks “cartoonish.”

Up against Windows, he says his Red Hat and Ubuntu Linux desktops have fewer licenses to maintain and fewer viruses.

Commercial Linux for the desktop Behind a push from Novell, Red Hat and others, the commercial Linux desktop is starting to show signs of maturity. Here is a look at some of the desktop versions that are available.
DistributionCurrent versionPriceDesktopOffice suiteEvaluation
Novell10$50GNOMEOpenOfficeToday's desktop Linux to beat.
Red Hat4.0$180 - $2,500GNOMEOpenOfficeNot No. 1 in any area, technically, but perhaps longest list of independent software vendors and certified hardware.
Linspire5.1$50KDEGNOME Office, KOffice, OpenOfficeUpdate infrastructure lets user click and run applications from a centralized service.
Linspire6.06 LTSFreeGNOMEGNOME Office, OpenOfficeDistribution, software updates are free; user pays support only.
Xandros4.0$40-$80KDEOpenOfficeTops for Web application station in mostly-Microsoft shops.

And Linux desktop vendors are improving their wares on a regular basis. Red Hat promises a new version every 24 months.

The next, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5.0, will be available early next year and include iSCSI network storage support, smart card integration, clustering and a cluster file system and InfiniBand support. Other important additions include upgrades to its Security Enhanced Linux and the Red Hat Network support infrastructure, and the introduction of stateless Linux, which replicates data to a server to aid in data recovery.

“It use to be the two biggest roadblocks [for the Linux desktop] were Active Directory and Exchange support and those two are gone now,” says Gerry Riveros, product marketing manager for client solutions at Red Hat.

Another concern, however, has been application support both in the number of applications available for the desktop and compatibility with different Linux distributions.

While major vendors are helping solve the application issue, a project going on behind the scenes may be adding just as much fuel to the Linux desktop evolution.

The Portland Project, which began in December 2005 at the Open Source Development Labs (OSDLL), last month released the first in a series of Linux desktop interfaces and tools aimed at simplifying the process of building applications on the baseline Linux desktop environments – GNOME and KDE.

In essence, developers won’t have to develop a version of their applications for each one.

“Portland gives developers one more reason to port their apps to Linux,” says John Cherry, desktop Linux initiative manager at OSDL. He says Portland will help independent software vendors cut testing cycles at least by half.

The first set of command line tools ensure that menu items and icons show up in a consistent way on the desktop.

The Portland tools will be in the next commercial distributions of Red Hat, Novell, Linspire and Debian derivatives, while Xandros already includes them in its toolkit.

The interfaces already have been used by Google to port Google Earth to Linux.

When asked if all this would add up to the Linux desktop denting Microsoft’s stronghold, Cherry says with a laugh, “we just don’t go there. I don’t really know how to answer that question. All I can say is that the Linux desktop has some really good capabilities now.”

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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