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Linux desktop revolution
Aug. 07, 2007

Opinion -- Dell and Ubuntu fired the first shots. Together, they delivered the first mainstream consumer Linux desktops and laptops. Then, on Aug. 6, Novell and Lenovo blew open the business laptop market with the first regular listing of a Linux-powered business desktop, the T-series ThinkPads with SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop. Then, just to underline the point that we're seeing a Linux desktop revolution, Dell announced that it too would be offering SLED on business systems. In Dell's case, the company will start by offering SLED in China.

Anyone out there still think that the Linux desktop will never make it? If so, wake up and smell the coffee. Dell, let me remind you, didn't just release consumer Linux systems as a PR stunt, and then let them wither and die. Dell followed that release up with more Ubuntu-based systems. This time, Dell placed Ubuntu on its newest line of laptops: the Inspiron 1420. Oh, and by the way, Dell's now offering Ubuntu-powered systems in England, France, and Germany.

I also saw Dell Chief Technology Officer Kevin Kettler demonstrate in his keynote speech the power of desktop Linux and virtualization. On one high-powered Dell laptop, he used SLED 10 Service Pack 1 as his base operating system and proceeded to show how he was able to use Xen to run -- all at the same time, mind you -- Vista, Windows XP SP2, a Windows client instance using Terminal Server, Ubuntu 7.04 and at least one other SLED instance.

His point: Worried about keeping your legacy applications running if you move to Linux? Big deal, run an instance of XP on top of Linux and run your older application in it. No fuss. No muss. Do you absolutely need a Vista application? Fine, run it in a Vista virtual machine. Worried about people bringing in malware from browsing the Web? Stick the browser in a Xen-based VM of its own and, if something goes horribly wrong, kill off the instance, leaving all the other programs and operating systems running along as usual, and restart it. That's it, and that's the end of a commonplace security problem. Oh, and not sure that Linux application will work the way you want? Again, no problem: Start it in an Ubuntu or SLED VM, while keeping your day-to-day programs running in XP running on top of SLED.

Yes, Windows has virtualization too. But, while this is cutting-edge stuff for any desktop system, Linux and Xen let you do it without paying Microsoft an arm and a leg. Having used both Microsoft and Linux virtualization programs, I would say that virtualization also runs a lot better with Linux as its foundation than it does with Windows.

Another point Kettler made was that in today's Web-based world, it really doesn't matter if you use an expensive copy of Vista or a free copy of Ubuntu and a SAAS (software as a service) application, like Google Apps Premier Edition. If that gives you what you need, why pay for your operating system? Or, for that matter, why pay for Microsoft Office?

As someone said to me at the show, "The cost of running a Linux desktop per day is the same as buying a cappuccino a day." That makes a pretty compelling case for at least giving desktop Linux a look, don't you think?

You might also want to take a close look at what Lenovo is actually doing with SLED. The company is not only releasing it on the T-Series, the most popular of the ThinkPad line and the system meant for most business users -- Lenovo is also offering full hardware and operating system support for it? You don't do that, people, unless you don't just think, you know that enterprises are going to buy these laptops.

Why is this finally happening? I could go on and on, but I think it's a combination of two major factors. The first is simply that the Linux desktop has gotten to the point where anyone or any business can use it to do useful work. The other is that Microsoft -- and I don't care what numbers people quote -- has a lemon in Vista.

First, there's not enough good in Vista to convince users to "upgrade" to it. And lately I've been hearing Windows users, not Linux fans, describe Vista as "Windows ME II." Windows ME, for those of you who have forgotten that miserable failure, was perhaps Microsoft's most mediocre version of Windows. It was, in brief, not very good, and now I'm hearing the same sorts of things from Vista users.

So, here we are. The Linux desktop was coming on strong and Vista, as I thought it might turn out, wasn't that good. And, thus it was that desktop Linux was finally given its chance to fight for its fair share of the desktop.

Hewlett-Packard, I'm sorry to say (since I predicted that HP would be the next major vendor to announce a Linux desktop), will not be showing a standard Linux preload on its systems at this LinuxWorld. Darn it.

My sources in HP tell me they're not sure why HP isn't making its desktop Linux move now. I don't know either. I do know one thing, though. Much as I hate being wrong, HP is going to be sorry for not throwing its hat into the desktop Linux ring sooner than later. The Linux desktop revolution is happening, and if HP doesn't hurry up it may not be on the winning side.

As for Microsoft and Windows, maybe the real reason Microsoft has been making deals with Linux companies isn't to entrap them into helping with patent FUD. Maybe the real answer is that Microsoft wants to make darn sure it's on the winning side too. MS-Linux? No, you won't see that anytime soon, but come the 2010s... well, let's just say I wouldn't be surprised to see it.

Steven J. Vaughan Nichols

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