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The state of the 2006 Linux desktop
Aug. 17, 2006

Analysis -- Were you to walk around LinuxWorld in San Francisco this week, for almost every person you'd see sitting, you'd see a laptop in front of them. And, if you're a snoopy person, like me, you'd also see that about half of those laptops were running Linux.

That doesn't sound like that much? Think again. Even a year ago, Linux-powered laptops were a rarity.

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My unscientific survey revealed that about a third of those desktops were running the newest Ubuntu, another third were running either openSUSE or SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop), and the final third were Freespire or Linspire. I also saw a scattering of Xandros and other Linux distributions.

They all have one thing in common. These were all from the new generation of desktop Linuxes that has appeared over the course of this summer.

Other than the official introduction of Linspire's Freespire, there was no major desktop news, as such, as the show.

What I found more interesting, though, was a sea-change in how people saw the Linux desktop. It wasn't just that there were far more people that were using Linux desktops, it was that they didn't see it as a statement of their loyalty to Linux over Windows. They were using it simply because it worked.

You could especially see this with people giving Freespire a try. Linspire made it almost impossible to be at LinuxWorld without getting a copy of its Linux. Many people decided to give it a try in its live CD mode.

They were, in a word, impressed.

What impressed them was the same thing that has made Freespire controversial in open-source purist circles: its incorporation of proprietary drivers and codecs.

With Freespire, they could just use their laptops' WiFi capabilities without worrying about it. With Freespire, they could view QuickTime or Windows media files or streams without additional software.

Yes, of course, any Linux expert can add in those capacities, but with Freespire, you don't even need to know Linux, much less be a Linux guru, to get your laptop to just work the way a Windows user would expect it to work.

Eric S. Raymond, one of open-source's founders, approves. Both in his Wednesday night panel on the future of Linux, and in conversations, Eric said that "We need a good answer for the twenty-year-old whose first question about Linux is 'Will it run my iPod?'"

Freespire can't. It's doable on Linux, but you need WINE or Crossover Office.

Raymond thinks, though, that, "No matter how painful, no matter how ugly, we must enable the Linux desktop to run Windows media, to support iPods. We may not want binary programs in user-space, but we must have them."

If we don't, Raymond thinks the Linux desktop will miss its one opportunity to make a significant dent in the Windows desktop monopoly.

No, it's not just that he sees Vista's manifest failings as giving Linux a golden window of opportunity. It's that he has studied the history of operating systems and he believes that the only time an operating system can be displaced is when its hardware platform changes underneath it. Now, and within the next year and a half, as we see the 32-bit computing world give way to the 64-bit world, this is not only the time for the Linux desktop to strike, it's probably the best opportunity Linux will get to try to displace Windows.

Raymond predicts that many people in the open-source community will not welcome the whole scale adoption of binary programs in user-space. He's right.

Jon "Maddog" Hall of Linux International, on the same panel, believes that embracing proprietary binary drivers and codecs is a mistake. He believes that users should fight with their wallets to make vendors embrace open-standards. For example, he believes that users should buy music-players that support open music standard such as Ogg Vorbis.

Eric's response: "They still want their iPods."

PC makers are also slowly, almost kicking and screaming, beginning to support Linux on the desktop.

I recently wrote that Lenovo was the first of the major hardware vendors to seriously pre-install Linux -- SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10, to be exact. And, they have.

At LinuxWorld, however, some of them were doing their darnest to spin that "no, no, they're not really pre-installing it. They're only sort of supporting it." You could almost see the terror in some of their eyes that Microsoft was going to come along and then stagger them with outrageous new rates for XP and, someday, Vista.

Get over it guys. You do pre-install, you do support it, and it's time to stop pretending that you only sort of support it. Yes, to get it pre-installed you do need to buy more than a "onesie or twosie" as one Lenovo staffer put it to me. Other Lenovo employees, however, confided that Lenovo can certainly install SLED rather than sending a system with a blank hard drive, a copy of SLED on a DVD, and a promise that all the devices will work correctly. And, that Lenovo would be willing to do so even for its smallest customers.

Having written that, I now expect yet more spinning from Lenovo executives. I also expect to get more odd notes from "users" asking me how I know what Lenovo was planning. Sorry guys, you support desktop Linux now -- so make the most of it. And, by the way, I don't give up my sources.

I think Lenovo will also be surprised to find that it's not just a few engineering users or "Linux-heads" who want pre-installed Linux desktops. At the special Linux reseller meeting, I was surprised to find that the number one thing resellers wanted from their PC OEMs and distributors was -- that's right -- the Linux desktop, and support and training for it.

You could have knocked me over with a feather.

I'd spent many years covering the reseller and system integrator world. As a rule, these are conservative people. They don't want to try "new and exciting." No, give them "solid and reliable" any day of the week. They tend to stick with existing technologies, which their staff already know like the back of their hands.

If these guys want the Linux desktop, it's not because they believe in it. It's because they know that their users want it, and are willing to pay for it.

There's a lesson in all this that all the PC makers, and all businesses, should hear loud and clear. The Linux desktop isn't just for Linux fans anymore -- it's on its way to being ready for all users now.

-- Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

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