- By Bruce Tober -
Four years ago, Paris held its first Linux Expo and the hype then had Linux equaling or surpassing Windows on the desktop within five years. This year, the predictions have changed just a wee bit and few believe those predictions, but many say they see, at least in Europe, that Linux is gaining significant ground, especially in the business world.
At the 2000 Linux Expo, Jacques Le Marois, co-founder of French Linux company MandrakeSoft, made the prediction that Linux would equal Windows on the desktop within five years. "Linux currently is not very well fitted for the
desktop side, because you don't have a lot of games. And there are not a lot of office applications. So I don't recommend it for business use. But it's evolving
very quickly. In order for Linux to be equal to or ahead of Windows on the desktop, we just need to go faster and faster. With the big projects like KDE, each new version is more and more useful and players like us and Caldera and Red Hat bring more and more
user friendliness to Linux."
But at the LinuxWorld Expo this week, Philippe Ambon, MandrakeSoft's services marketing project manager, said because Linux personal finance packages like GNUCash are available and can import files from Quicken, that cancels one of the one of the main drawbacks to Windows users switching to Linux. At least as importantly, a new Linux-based, business accounting package, EUROLogiciel, based on French accountancy
law, is coming to market, indicating that Linux is mature enough to be seriously considered by a range of businesses.
But critics say it's the lack the Linux desktop applications, such as office suites to compete with Microsoft Office, that is holding the OS back from universal acceptance.
"I've been using StarOffice 5.1 and more recently 5.2 for several years and there are a few things lacking," Ambon says. "They're very minor, but they're lacking." Ambon says StarOffice's spreadsheet functions need work, but the imminent release of StarOffice 6 will resolve that situation.
Daniel Thebault, general manager of Aliacom, a Linux consultancy, agrees that Linux is making headway in Europe. "The market is developing. Two or three years from now it will be way up, but still not equal to or surpassing Windows." He bases his analysis
on observing that the number of people making apparently serious "contact at our stand today, the first day of the expo, surpassed the number for all of last year's three-day event."
And, like Ambon, Thebault believes "there needs to be improvements to the desktop applications to make them more competitive with Word and Excel. Star Office's
functionality just isn't as good."
According to Alexandre Lefebvre, a leader of the ObjectWeb consortium of Open Source Java application developers, Linux is gaining ground in Europe on servers, as it is in other parts of the world, rather than on desktops. "Linux is taking over the server
market before the desktop market," Lefebvre says. "One reason for this
is you've got a lot of middleware on Linux and it's still true today that Linux is not as easy to install as Windows and the office suites on Linux are not up to what Microsoft Office is. And finally there's the problem that changing habits of using a particular
word processor is much more difficult than switching from a XYZ Web server to Apache."
For example, Lefebvre said, within France Telecom, there were 2,000 machines on OS/2 recently moved to Linux and Samba for use as file servers for a savings of about UDS $1 million per year in licenses "and for a better service as well." But on France Telecom's desktop, there's been no switch from Windows.
"But where the desktop is concerned," he said, "the StarOffice suite is gaining in compatibility with Microsoft Office. And it's gaining in reliability. But
the publicly available version 5.2 isn't very good in converting to Microsoft Office. But the OpenOffice (the Open Source version of StarOffice) is almost perfect in its conversions."
Another key issue, he says, is the perceived lack of support. "People are of a mindset that they've always paid big bucks for licensing, which supposedly included
support. They're afraid that a free license means they get no support. They don't know or understand that they can get top-grade support for free from thousands
of Linux experts on the various mailing lists and newsgroups. They can even pay specialist companies for support if they want.
"Of course, the same guys providing the support via the company from whom they buy those support contracts are some of the very same people who supply free support
on the mailing lists and newsgroups, but that's neither here nor there. The bottom line is the support for Linux products is every bit as good as that provided for Windows products and far superior in most cases."
Lefebvre concurred with the others that "the only thing holding Linux back from replacing Windows is actually not Windows or Linux, it's the office suite. All the other
applications are just the same. But it's getting there and within a couple of years it will be there, and the only thing then that will be missing will be for Microsoft Office to make available plugins to allow it to import the Star Office documents you receive from
just about everyone.
"I mean you've got everything else everyone wants," he concluded. "You've got mail, Opera Web browser is fine. But when it comes to the office suite, that's Windows territory. So things are happening faster on the server side because it's not end-users, it's technical users and techies who don't have problems using Linux. And Linux is more stable, most people don't care if their desktop fails, but they care if their
main database behind their e-commerce site fails."
And finally, perhaps the key indicator of the huge adoption of Linux throughout Europe is the increasing numbers of European governments looking into requiring Open Source software for their agencies. Among the European governments considering greater use of Open Source software are Germany and the United Kingdom.