Linux Gets A Lift

The desktop Linux market got a big boost earlier this month at LinuxWorld, where Lenovo unveiled plans to soon begin selling ThinkPads preloaded with Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop. The deal makes Lenovo the second major vendor to support Linux on its consumer PCs, following the trail Dell blazed in May with its decision to offer machines loaded with Ubuntu Linux.

The effects of the groundbreaking moves are more symbolic than tangible: Solution providers say the path to a broader customer embrace of desktop Linux remains strewn with obstacles. But by committing to bundle, sell and support systems without Microsoft's ubiquitous Windows, Dell and Lenovo have cracked the door open a bit further for the challengers to Microsoft's desktop dominance.

"At the end of the day, how many of our customers in large enterprises actually use the preloaded version? Very few," Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED) Product Manager Guy Lunardi admitted during a LinuxWorld panel discussion. "But it's a matter of making it available."

Lenovo will begin shipping SLED ThinkPads in the fourth quarter, offering them to both bulk corporate buyers and individual consumers. Meanwhile, Dell recently unveiled plans to expand its worldwide Linux desktop push by making preloaded Ubuntu machines in Europe. It also intends to sell SLED on PCs and laptops in China.

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Desktop Linux has been something of a white whale for open-source software and its evangelists, with every year for the past decade being declared at some point to be "the year of the Linux desktop." The current annum isn't likely to be an exception. In addition to vendor support for preloaded Linux, advocates point to an assortment of recent technical breakthroughs addressing longstanding pain points.

"This year, we've seen some major advances," said John Cherry, the Linux Foundation's desktop Linux initiative manager. Significant improvements in 3-D graphics rendering, audio and other multimedia support, and in system manageability have raised Linux in the enterprise to a whole new level, he said.

Greater Customer Interest

InTech Solutions CEO Bob Brentson, whose Penfield, N.Y.-based services firm specializes in open-source solutions, said he's seeing a greater customer receptivity to Linux and other open-source software on the desktop: "There's a lot of people interested and inquisitive about what it could do for them."

Brentson's No. 1 suggestion to his clients is that they give Novell's version of OpenOffice a try as a less expensive alternative to Microsoft Office. Every customer who has done so has stuck with OpenOffice, he said.

But when it comes to desktop Linux, Brentson runs into more obstacles. Lackluster multimedia support remains a huge problem; customers don't want to mess with hacks to enable video and audio playback. Application availability is also a sticking point. Popular small-business tools like QuickBooks and ACT don't have Linux versions available.

Next: Raising Awareness

"The distribution vendors don't seem to be running with a sense of urgency," Brentson said. "We've been trying to push up the food chain over at Novell that they're going to need to get more aggressive with the vendors to get their products ported over."

Solution providers that try to evangelize desktop Linux usually have a tale of woe about the technical impediment that sends their pitch careening off the rails. For Chris Rainey, who operates a San Rafael, Calif.-based consultancy, it's ActiveX, a Microsoft technology for Web application interactivity.

Rainey has a number of clients, particularly in real estate, who conduct most of their business on the Web and don't need rich PC client functionality. "Those guys could do beautifully on Linux if their Web-based applications could work," he said. But until Linux cracks ActiveX, the applications won't work, and migrating will be a moot issue.

Power management was another issue in the spotlight at LinuxWorld.

Linux laptops sometimes lag Windows machines in battery life (though not when compared against resource-intensive Windows Vista), and numerous conference speakers referred to it as one of Linux's most pressing issues. If Linux could boost its battery life to offer even a small advantage against rival systems, the productivity advances and energy savings would be notable when multiplied throughout the entire industry, Novell CEO Ron Hovsepian said in a keynote address.

"If you just look at the facts, there's a lot of opportunity—or, as we would say, it's a 'target-rich environment'—to attack power management and do a better job," Hovsepian said.

Improved power management may prove essential if Linux wants to stake a claim on enterprise desktops. U.S. government agencies—which collectively form a major market for IT products—are required to purchase PCs that comply with a strict new specification from the Energy Star program, jointly managed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy. Right now, around 25 percent of the PCs on the market meet the tightened requirements. If Linux PCs don't get on the Energy Star list of qualified products, they'll be excluded from a major buying market, said Thomas Bolioli, principal of IT services firm Terra Novum in Watertown, Mass., which specializes in environmental issues.

Raising Awareness

One advantage of preloading deals like Dell's and Lenovo's is that they raise vendor awareness of such issues. InTech Solutions' Brentson doesn't anticipate ever running prebuilt Linux images, preferring instead to customize his own for his clients. But vendors that preload Linux have to ensure that they have hardware and driver compatibility for the distributions they load, which in turn makes life easier on solution providers supporting those same hardware/software combinations.

For now, Linux on the enterprise desktop is best suited to niche markets. Novell's Lunardi said he sees the most demand in spaces like claims management, where employees have very transactional workflows and use only a handful of applications. ("Usually Solitaire is one of them," he quipped.)

The application support issue is also being addressed incrementally. One startup attracting heavy interest at LinuxWorld was Projity, developer of an open-source project management application called OpenProj. Now in beta testing, OpenProj is intended as a rival to Microsoft Office Project, the professional edition that carries a $999 per-user retail price. Advocates hope OpenProj can succeed as well as OpenOffice, which has steadily advanced its technology and built its reputation as a viable Microsoft Office alternative.

If open-source desktop software acceptance grows, the market shift is likely to hit solution providers right in the bottom line. Open source is as good for InTech Solutions' business as its customers, Brentson said. "We try to demonstrate to customers the different ways they can save money or extend their IT budgets, with the understanding that if we can save them significant money on software licensing, they'll be more likely to go ahead with additional IT initiatives."