Linux Gadflies Organize To End Microsoft's Desktop Rule


Ximian, Xandros, CodeWeavers, MandrakeSoft, SuSE, OpenOffice.org form consortium


The Linux gadflies have organized to drive more Linux on the desktop--and end Microsoft's monopoly of PC software.

Notable commercial companies in the Linux desktop space--including Ximian, Xandros, CodeWeavers, MandrakeSoft and SuSE Linux AG--announced on Wednesday the creation of the Desktop Linux Consortium.

The consortium, also comprised of significant open-source groups such as OpenOffice.org, Samba.org, Debian.org and KDE, has also received backing from the founder and chief developer of the Linux kernel, Linus Torvalds, who often avoids discussing the business of Linux.

Torvalds declined to respond to questions from CRN but said in a statement released by the consortium that the open-source community today provides more than 80 percent of the tools office workers need and that Linux on the desktop was "inevitable."

The consortium, reportedly backed by Hewlett-Packard, also intends to create a user advisory board as part of its charter, sources said. It will function as a nonprofit trade association and has named Bruce Perens as interim executive director and Jeremy White, CEO of CodeWeavers, as interim chairperson.

The board membership and organizational charter will be determined by the founding companies over the next several weeks.

Noticeably absent from the roster is Lindows.com, a company that generated significant publicity as a result of its legal tangles with Microsoft over the Windows trademark. Lindows.com prevailed in its fight with Microsoft to use the LindowsOS brand name, but generated some conflict in the desktop community by attempting to control the agenda of the Desktop Linux Summit slated to be held later this month in San Diego, sources close to the company said.

All of the Desktop Linux Consortium members pulled out of that planned show before announcing the formation of the consortium, and intend to sponsor a vendor-neutral Linux desktop conference this spring with backing by major players such as IBM and HP, sources said.

To date, very few corporations will publicly acknowledge they have pilot-testing going on or are planning to move Linux on the desktop.

Xandros, a consortium member and startup that acquired Corel's Linux OS two years ago, signed a deal with one division of the Hilton Hotel chain for Xandros Desktop, and thousands of seats are in testing, executives said. It is also in pilot-testing with a large call center, according to executives.

In Toronto, three-year-old Linux services firm Starnix won a contract last year with BDI Canada, a ball-bearing distributor, to move hundreds of Microsoft Windows and Office desktops to Linux.

Another solution provider, Olliance Consulting, has 10 Linux customers, including the U.S. Navy and Fox Racing, a distributor of apparel for the motorcross and bicycle racing industry. Fox Racing uses a mix of Microsoft and Sun Microsystems technologies and has tapped Olliance to migrate its core infrastructure and applications to Linux because of concerns over the rising licensing costs of Microsoft software.

As part of its major reselling pact announced with Red Hat last year, IBM Global Services (IGS) is reportedly conducting pilot-testing of Red Hat 8.0 Linux desktop with several Red Hat Advanced Linux customers that want a single vendor for its client and server needs, sources said.

They also claim IGS is providing customer feedback to Red Hat as the Linux company continues work on a major corporate desktop, planned for later this year. Red Hat executives acknowledged that IBM--like any other company--is free to distribute Red Hat 8.0 as it sees fit, but it would not comment on reports that IGS is helping to enhance Red Hat 8.0.

Despite those wins, Linux has failed to amass any significant share of the desktop market. According to the latest figures from research firm IDC, Linux garnered a mere 2 percent share of the desktop market in 2001, while Microsoft Windows had a 94 percent share--an increase since the software giant's antitrust case got under way in 1998.

IDC said it expects Linux to show some market-share gains on the desktop for 2002, but the open-source platform has a long way to go on that front compared to the level of success it has achieved on the server side. For instance, Linux represented 27 percent of all new server operating-system shipments in 2001, IDC reported.

OEM efforts to push Linux on the desktop have met with little success. Dell Computer, for example, stopped preloading Linux on PCs last year due to low customer interest, but it sees a bright future for Red Hat's forthcoming 32-bit technical workstation, designed for use with Red Hat Advanced Server, executives said.

"All of our workstations ship with Linux, the majority of them running Red Hat Linux 8.0 and still some remnants of version 7.3," said Brent Schroeder, director of engineering for enterprise Linux in Dell's product group.

However, increasing interest and use of open standards and major corporate concerns about Microsoft's Licensing 6.0 policies is improving the business climate for Linux in the desktop, advocates maintain.

The success of Linux desktops, at least initially, depends heavily on their interoperability with Microsoft's desktop and server applications, as well as Windows applications, said one analyst.

"I haven't seen anything that addresses all the compatibility issues," said George Weiss, a vice president with Gartner, noting that he expects initial deployment of Linux desktops to be on new PCs and few corporate sites to switch from Windows to Linux because of the cost of the conversion process. "It's more of an integration within existing environments. Users need to interoperate and send files back and forth with other Windows users."

CodeWeavers, a commercial Linux company that provides software to enable such interoperability with the Windows environment, agrees it is a big challenge but said it intends to do it.

CodeWeavers executives agree with the assessment that it will take some time before Linux can support Microsoft file formats seamlessly and with equivalent performance.

"We just need more time and money, and we will make Linux into a fully Windows-compatible environment," said CodeWeavers' White.

In fact, the company this quarter plans to release a major upgrade of CrossOver Office, version 2.0, that for the first time supports Office XP and Microsoft Access, sources said. The product, which is bundled with several leading Linux desktop products including Xandros and Red Hat, currently supports earlier Microsoft Office versions, Internet Explorer, Lotus Notes, Intuit Quicken and Microsoft Visio.

Microsoft did not want to comment directly about the formation of the consortium. However, one Windows executives who attended LinuxWorld recently maintains Microsoft will stay ahead on the desktop because of the tight integration of its applications, availability of third-party applications for Windows and Office and the familiarity of the Windows and Office interface.

"Customers are looking for a familiar user experience and the applications," said Peter Houston, senior director of Windows server strategy. "If you look at Lindows, they've backed off their claim about Windows application compatibility. Users demand incredibly high compatibility, and none of the emulation layers have delivered on the level of compatibility users expect."

Windows compatibility is only one obstacle to Linux desktop adoption. The dearth of homegrown Linux applications--and Windows applications ported to Linux--continues to be a major roadblock to adoption.

However, the debut of new Linux desktop applications from high-profile companies and organizations including Mitch Kapor's nonprofit Open Source Application Foundation are being closely watched. The organization is developing a Microsoft Outlook-like competitor, code-named Chandler, that runs on Windows, Linux and Apple computers. It is expected to ship in 2004.

While Sun's StarOffice and OpenOffice are viable office suites bundled with leading Linux distributions, they have thus far made little inroad in getting corporate support. But the debut of the long-awaited Mozilla browser, updated OpenOffice--which are both bundled on several leading Linux distributions--have also inspired more desktop use, observers said.

One major Linux financier, Linux Global Partners, has backed a startup called GoBe Software, whose Productive office suite--designed initially for the Be operating system and later for Windows--is being ported to Linux. The companies have been in negotiations for several months but the official name and timing of the Linux Office suite--which resides in a 16-Mbyte footprint--is not clear.

"It's the next Office killer," said Rick Berenstein, chairman of Linux Global Partners and vice chairman of Ottawa-based Xandros, noting that existing Microsoft Office, WordPerfect Office and even OpenOffice are too slow and bloated for the Internet era. "Companies are looking for a new office suite, and we have an idea of shipping something new with a different philosophy."

The fate of Linux on the desktop remains a big question mark, but the impending debut of new desktop distributions and GUIs from Red Hat, Xandros, Ximian and Sun will likely spark some interest this spring.

The forthcoming offerings, for example, will offer more corporate-oriented GUIs, tools to enable easier installations, updated browser and OpenOffice code and, most significantly, enhanced CodeWeavers Office and PlugIns that enable interoperability of the Linux desktop with Microsoft Office XP and other Windows applications.

At LinuxWorld last month, SuSE--a major Linux distributor and powerhouse behind UnitedLinux--unveiled SuSE Linux Office Desktop. The launch, the first result of SuSE's desktop initiative, is deemed significant because it enables users to run Microsoft Office as well as Sun StarOffice on the Linux desktop, executives said.

The SuSE Linux Office Desktop assistant, for example, will control the installation of Microsoft applications, the printer configuration and the integration of network directories.

Red Hat's forthcoming Red Hat Linux desktop update, code-named Phoenix and due to ship in April, will offer an enhanced BlueCurve interface and improved font rendering. Red Hat aims to offer an enhanced desktop later this year that incorporates an e-mail client that can interface with leading e-mail servers, executives said.

Xandros is also working on version 2.0 of its namesake Linux desktop that will support more Windows applications, including Office XP, said Berenstein.

Ximian, Boston, is preparing an updated version of its desktop GUI that will be based on the GNOME 2.0 platform and will offer more ease-of-use features, a more "elegant" user interface and enhanced compatibility with Windows environments, executives said.

Sun is also crafting a major desktop bundle aimed at desktop Solaris and Unix users called Sun ONE Linux Desktop that has been delayed for release until next quarter.