Red Hat Readies Desktop 5 To Compete With Novell

Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) 5 Desktop, which is expected to ship later this year, offers an improved desktop with enhanced graphics, OpenOffice 2.0, support for the Oasis file format, a new Access-like database application, improved wireless support and improved compatibility with Microsoft Office, according to a Red Hat document released at the company's recent summit.

RHEL 5 Desktop, the first major upgrade of the corporate desktop since version 4 shipped in January 2005, is based upon the Fedora 5 code. Fedora 5 was made available on the Web in March.

One IBM partner said obstacles to deployment remain, but added customers are beginning to grasp that Linux offers them a strong cost saving and tighter security on the desktop.

"I see many opportunities with clients that are looking to get away from the Microsoft desktop and Office," said Frank Basanta, director of technology at Systems Solutions, New York. "The only problems that can arise are where they are running a specific vertical market application that only runs on Windows."

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Version 5's support for OpenOffice 2.0, Firefox 1.5 and Gnome 2.16 is expected to significantly improve the desktop experience for end users, Red Hat maintains. For instance, OpenOffice 2.0's support for the Oasis file format OpenDocument as well as a new slide-panel presentation user interface, new icons and theme/skin switching capabilities will make the desktop more compelling.

RHEL 5 Desktop's file manager, meanwhile, offers integrated search support, e-mail integration and allows users to share public directories over the local network.

The software also offers improved wireless support via the inclusion of a default Network Manager that will automatically connect the desktop to known networks. In addition, RHEL 5 will offer fully integrated VPN support.

In its new corporate desktop, Red Hat also is trying to dazzle new users with improved digital camera integration, support for encrypted USB peripherals and use of Accelerated Indirect GLX. New applications include the Evince document reader, Totem and Ekiga, an open-source phone-to-PC feature.

Red Hat did not respond to calls for comment on this story.

Some solution providers say Red Hat and Novell may have an easier time trying to convince large enterprise customers to move to the Linux desktop but predict it will be a difficult sell in the SMB market.

"Unfortunately, we don't see any opportunity for it. We're an SMB shop. Even the most inexperienced SMB end user is going to balk at it when confronted with the unfamiliar look and steep learning curve," said Daniel Haurey, principal at Exigent Technologies, Morristown, N.J. "I'm sure that the folks at Red Hat would love to liken it to switching from gas-powered to hybrid, but I think the reality is that it's more like going from driving to work to walking."

Some observers say interoperability problems with Microsoft Office continue to hinder Linux's growth on the desktop. The key problems, which Red Hat and Novell are trying to solve, include poor Microsoft document conversion, particularly Excel, and "mediocre" connectivity to Exchange.

According to a recent survey conducted by CRN, solution providers polled said 11 percent of their installed base of end users run Linux as their primary desktop, 85 percent run Windows and the other 4 percent run other clients.

While that indicates increasing opportunity, the survey also suggests that Red Hat, the leader in the Linux server market, may have a tougher time competing against Novell on the Linux desktop front.

According to the survey, for example, 62 percent of respondents said they think Suse Linux Desktop 10 is or will be a viable alternative to Windows Vista as a desktop PC platform, while only 35 percent of the same population believes Red Hat is a viable alternative to Windows.