, we made a number of
predictions about what the year held for the Linux community. One of those
read as follows:
Desktop Linux will be taken far more seriously by the end of the
year.... At that point, the Linux desktop will have almost
everything needed by a large number of desktop users. More
specialized applications will take years to fill in, but the basics
are coming into place.
Normally we don't say much about our past predictions, in the hope that our
readers will forget them as soon as possible. We may not do any worse than
those analyst groups that sell their predictions printed on heavy paper,
but we still find ourselves embarrassed by the things we say at times. In
this case, however, we just might have gotten it right.
The latest development on the Linux desktop front is SuSE's announcement of the "SuSE Linux Office
Desktop," a new version of its distribution which is due out in January.
This distribution is, of course, aimed at the desktop market; it features
(relatively) easy administration, a full set of office productivity tools
(based on StarOffice), and CrossOver Office for those proprietary
applications that simply cannot be done without.
SuSE, of course, is not alone in its new emphasis on the desktop. Red Hat
Linux 8.0 includes a reworked, friendlier desktop. Distributions like
Lycoris and Xandros are aimed at desktop users; Mandrake Linux, of course,
has always had this emphasis. There is a Debian Desktop
Project out there. Linux systems can even be purchased at outlets like
Not too long ago, even the strongest Linux
advocates mostly agreed that Linux was only suited to
server-oriented tasks. Now, more and more people think that Linux is ready for
desktop tasks, and, perhaps more to the point, that there is money to be
made in desktop Linux.
One might well wonder why desktop Linux is coming into its own now. There
are several possible reasons:
- The set of free desktop applications is maturing. Tools like
OpenOffice, AbiWord, Gnumeric, Mozilla, Konqueror, etc. have reached a
point where they are good enough for most users. The feature lists
may still fall short of the proprietary competition in some cases, but
most of the truly important features are there.
- The Wine project, in the form of products like CrossOver Office,
has, after many years, reached a point where it can run the
proprietary applications desktop users rely on. The availability of
these applications makes the Linux desktop that much more valuable.
- The difficult economy and Microsoft's licensing schemes have made
companies more interested in ways of saving money.
- People are finally beginning to notice that Linux users don't
have to spend their time fighting the virus of the week.
- Linux has clearly survived the dotcom crash - a fact which still
surprises many people. Fears that Linux will vanish like so many
other highly-hyped technologies are fading away.
The theory of "disruptive technologies" states that a new technology does
not have to be better than the one it replaces - at least, not in every
way. It is enough to offer advantages, financial and otherwise, that are
sufficiently compelling to get people to make a change. Linux (and free
software in general) have a lot to offer in cost savings, security, rapid
and open development, freedom from vendor lock-in, etc. Increasingly,
Linux also has applications that perform widely useful functions, and which
are becoming easier to use. Many of these applications are on their way
toward becoming the best available, free or otherwise. We are, it seems,
reaching that point where the balance begins to tip. This may truly be the
beginning of the era of the free desktop.
We should not lose track of the fact that a great deal remains to be done
before free desktops can truly achieve World Domination, however. Linux
administration is getting easier, but remains difficult. Linux
applications still lack features that many users want. A visit to any
computer store will show that there is a whole range of applications that
are still absent on Linux: where are the children's games, menu planners,
language courses, tax return preparers,
home remodel designers, and makeover assistants for
Linux? When your Linux system will help you look like the Cosmo Girl,
we'll know we have truly arrived. But that day will remain distant until
Linux becomes a more friendly platform for proprietary applications.
It is also worth noting that development on the Linux kernel has emphasized
performance on very large systems just as it looks like the Linux desktop
is going to take off. Performance on smaller systems is supposed to be
addressed during the stabilization period. Testing by desktop users will
be an important part of that process; as more people test out the
development kernel in the coming months, it becomes increasingly likely
that the next stable kernel release will meet the needs of desktop users.
The true triumph of the free desktop is still probably some years away. A
great deal of hard work remains to be done. But the results of years of
effort by thousands of developers determined to improve the Linux desktop
experience are beginning to be felt in a serious way. It is going to be
fun to watch where things go from here.
to post comments)