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Linux and the desktop

Last January, 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 Wal-Mart. 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.

Comments (11 posted)

Study: free software in the U.S. Department of Defense

The MITRE corporation has just released the results of a study it performed on the use of free and open source software (which it calls "FOSS") within the U.S. Department of Defense. It is an interesting look at how the DoD uses free software, and what would happen if an anti-free-software policy were to be adopted. The full study is available as a 160-page PDF file; here you'll find a rather shorter summary of what it says.

The question that this study was meant to answer seems to be "should the military ban the use of free software?" The conclusion they came to is clear:

Neither the survey nor the analysis supports the premise that banning or seriously restricting FOSS would benefit DoD security or defensive capabilities. To the contrary, the combination of an ambiguous status and largely ungrounded fears that it cannot be used with other types of software are keeping FOSS from reaching optimal levels of use.

Looking at one area in particular, the report continues:

The main conclusion of the analysis was that FOSS software plays a more critical role in the DoD than has generally been recognized... One unexpected result was the degree to which security depends on FOSS... Taken together, these factors imply that banning FOSS would have immediate, broad, and strongly negative impacts on the ability of many sensitive and security-focused DoD groups to defend against cyberattacks.

The report looks at free software licenses in considerable detail in a deliberate attempt to address a number of institutional fears about those licenses. Worries about licensing, say the authors, have led to a suboptimal level of free software usage. It is a reasonably straightforward and accurate study; for added fun, they look at the EULA for Microsoft's "Mobile Internet Toolkit" and compare its terms with those of free licenses. "However, unlike the Microsoft MIT EULA, the GPL places no constraints on software simply running on the same system, and actually goes out of its way not to intrude on other licenses outside of that context."

The report includes a survey of how free software is used within the DoD now. They break that usage down into four categories:

  • Infrastructure, using tools like sendmail and apache.

  • Software development, especially with gcc and Perl.

  • Security, including intrusion detection systems, security analysis tools (i.e. SARA and Snort), and secured operating systems like OpenBSD. "Yet another important way in which FOSS contributes to security is by making it possible to change and fix security holes quickly in the face of new modes of cyberattack. This ability, which allows rapid response to new or innovative forms of cyberattack, is intrinsic to the FOSS approach and generally impractical in closed source products."

  • Research, which benefits from Linux clusters and the general culture of free software.

The report authors looked at costs, of course:

More often than not, the strongest deciding factors for choosing FOSS products were capability and reliability, with cost being an important but secondary factor.

They note one other important factor regarding free software and costs:

Without the constant pressure of low-cost, high-quality FOSS products competing with the closed-source products, the closed-source vendors could more easily fall into a cycle in which their support costs balloon and costs are passed on to their locked-in customers.

The report concludes with three recommendations that, they say, would help the DoD make optimal use of free software. They are:

  • Create a "generally recognized as safe" list of free software. 115 free applications found by the survey would be the starting point for this list. Suggested "applications" include, however, Linux, OpenBSD, NetBSD, and FreeBSD, so this list would be pretty general.

  • Develop generic infrastructure, development, security, and research policies. These policies would promote the use of free software in situations where it is deemed appropriate.

  • Encourage use of FOSS to promote product diversity. "Acquisition diversity reduces the cost and security risks of being fully dependent no a single software product, while architectural diversity lowers the risk of catastrophic cyber attacks based on automated exploitation of specific features for flaws of very widely deployed products."

Finally, a set of appendices provides lists of free software applications in use within the DoD, and the full text of a large number of free software licenses.

If the DoD was seriously considering banning free software, one can only hope that this report will put an end to such thoughts. Through a great deal of detailed research, the report's authors have demonstrated that the Department of Defense is already heavily dependent on free software, and would be badly hurt if use such software were forbidden. Increasingly, free software is crucial part of the systems we all use, and that, of course, is a good thing.

Comments (7 posted)

LWN meta-news

It's time for our weekly report to our readers. Read on for the latest subscription counts and a few bits of site news.

As of this writing, we are getting close to 2200 subscribers. That still leaves us far short of our medium-term goal of 4000. Things are headed in the right direction, however; with continued support from our readers, we hope that we will get to where we need to be before too long.

We are also encouraged by a small increase in the rate of corporate subscriptions. They still fall short of our hopes, but there are signs that the bureaucratic wheels are beginning to turn. If you work for a company that could benefit from a subscription, please consider talking to them about setting one up.

This week we were also able to announce a group subscription for the Debian project, which has been funded by HP. Debian developers are encouraged to read the announcement for information on how to get access to this subscription.

For those of you who have been requesting the ability to pay with American Express: we have finally managed to get that set up. Progress on setting up a Euro-zone bank account has been slower; it looks like that will not be a viable option anytime soon. The best approach for accepting funds from Europeans without credit cards may turn out to be to simply have those people send us checks. We're still working on that one, though.

There has been a small stream of requests for a stable URL for the latest free version of the Weekly Edition. That has now been implemented; the current free weekly can be found at:

Of course, lwn.net/current continues to refer to the most recent (subscription) Weekly Edition.

We have been having some trouble with sites blocking mail from the LWN server (things like the various LWN mailing lists and subscription notices). That mail originates from our production server, which is donated to us by Rackspace. Some people, evidently, have received a lot of spam from Rackspace-hosted systems, and have simply blocked the entire Rackspace network. Rackspace tells us that they shut down spammers as soon as they know of them, but it's an ongoing battle. Meanwhile, we are looking into other ways of generating and routing mail so that this problem, hopefully, will be behind us soon.

For those of you making your holiday shopping lists: LWN gift certificates will be available shortly. The work is mostly done, but won't be completed at this point until after the weekly publication cycle. Stay tuned for the announcement.

That is the LWN news for this week. Thanks, as always, for your support.

Comments (19 posted)

No letters to the editor

For the second week in a row, we have no "letters to the editor" page, since nobody sent us any letters. The reduction in readership caused by the subscription gate probably has a lot to do with that. Still, we would like to hear from you; if you have comments you would like to see published, please feel free to send them to letters@lwn.net.

Comments (5 posted)

Page editor: Jonathan Corbet
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