Will Your Next Desktop PC Run Linux?

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Linux has been called the poor man's Windows and the operating system for geeks. But regardless of its nickname, the open-source OS is slowly and steadily gaining steam on the desktop. It may not topple the Microsoft empire anytime soon, but recent offerings indicate that Linux distributors, hardware vendors, and developers are dedicated to making Linux on the desktop a reality.

Distributions such as Xandros, Sun's Java Desktop System, and Lindows' Linspire are targeting new users interested in migrating from Windows. They offer easy-to-use and install distributions as well as inexpensive PCs preloaded with Linux, available at retailers such as Wal-Mart.

But using Linux doesn't guarantee problem-free computing. Getting the OS to run smoothly can be complicated, and often users must contend with a lack of software support and device drivers. But companies are finding ways to get around these obstacles, and users are responding.

Sales of Xandros's distribution are up sixfold from a year ago, says CEO Dr. Rick Berenstein. He cites the lack of licensing fees for Linux, the availability of cheap hardware, and security problems with Windows as just a few reasons the open-source operating system is gaining popularity.

Plenty of distributions have started teaming up with hardware vendors to make the transition to Linux easier for Windows users looking for alternatives.

"As computer hardware costs have dropped below $500, it makes no sense to pay as much or more for a proprietary desktop operating system and applications now that inexpensive and open alternatives are available," Berenstein says.

Recently, Xandros paired with Element Computing, a PC retailer with a "no-Windows policy," to offer ION laptops preloaded with its distribution. (Element also sells tablets and desktops preloaded with Linux.)

But Xandros isn't the only Linux distribution playing the hardware field. Lindows has been preloading its Linspire OS on inexpensive PCs starting at under $300 and selling them at big retailers like Wal-Mart. Aside from planning an IPO and battling Microsoft in courts around the globe, Lindows is moving into other hardware areas. For example, the company recently arranged with Dell to support its DJ audio player under Linux.

Sun has ten hardware partners preinstalling and testing its Java Desktop on systems, according to Peder Ulander, Sun's director of desktop solutions. Most of the preloaded systems are sold in Asia, he says; in the United States, most Linux installations are going onto older hardware and existing systems.

Worms and Woes

Ulander says that some of Sun's customers arrived looking for a more stable operating system after the latest e-mail worm struck. "One customer's plant shut down for three days because 100 percent of it was running Windows," he says.

Sun isn't looking to take on Microsoft, however. Instead, it's going after customers who didn't upgrade to the latest version of Windows--those running Windows 95 or 98, who will inevitably lose Microsoft support.

"But what's the cost benefit?" Ulander asks. To migrate from Windows 95 to XP "requires new hardware. I can come in and give you a Web browser, e-mail, and other applications for $50."

Still, it takes more than cheap applications to win users, according to Ulander. "At the end of the day, if you don't have innovation and vision, Microsoft has the opportunity to out-innovate."

This is one reason why Sun is working on what it calls Project Looking Glass, a three-dimensional desktop environment that the company plans to include in a future release of its Java Desktop Linux distribution. Because the desktop is 3D, you can stack windows on their sides or flip them over, changing the way you organize your desktop and files. Ulander cites plenty of other uses for the software, such as 3D design.

Beyond the Hype

Two years ago, Ulander listened to Red Hat's CEO say that Linux on the desktop would never happen. But now, financial institutions, call centers, and kiosks around the world are adopting Sun's operating system, he says. He predicts mass deployment by the end of this year or the beginning of next year.

Ulander isn't the only person who believes Linux adoption is gaining momentum.

A wave of Linux adoption is happening now on the desktop, according to Paula Hunter, director of business development at the Open Source Development Lab. OSDL is a nonprofit organization dedicated to accelerating the growth and adoption of Linux in the enterprise. (It's also the place where Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux kernel, works.)

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