August 11, 2003

Making Linux more like Windows than Windows

by Chris Gulker

Alan Nugent, CTO of Novell, thinks he knows how to drive wide adoption of the Linux desktop. Everywhere. Today.


Make it so users can't tell (and don't care) it's not Windows, and make it so admins can manage thousands of Linux desktops as easily as Windows.

Nugent thinks there are a lot of buyers, and they're ready to spend money today: government and education markets are two, but the really interesting space is large enterprises. He, and Novell, are so convinced of the inevitability of the Linux desktop that they bought Ximian, arguably the leader in providing a user-, and admin-, friendly face for Linux.

Nugent says Novell is no newbie to the Linux desktop: customers like Cisco have already standardized on Linux desktops for technical users. People who used to have a Unix workstation for their main tasks and a Windows machine so they could get into other employee systems for HR, expenses et al. now "have a single, Intel desktop running Linux."

Truth be known, many Linux-oriented firms point proudly to enterprises that have Linux desktop trials in place among their tech-savvy users. But Nugent thinks business conditions are such that enterprises are ready to try Linux desktops more widely, and Novell is ready to take them to the next level.

He thinks that Novell, with its deep understanding of enterprise IT - from both user and administrator perspectives - along with its recent embrace of Open Source and its strategic acquisition of Ximian - is perfectly positioned to drive Linux desktop acceptance to a wider audience in large enterprises. And he thinks that their customers are ready - today - to jettison Windows, at least in selected departments.

The key aspects are both the right technology and customer-centric requirements like 'personality migration'. "People customize their desktops just like they personalize their cubes," says Nugent. Novell already has experience in preserving 'personalities' during Windows upgrades. The key will be taking the average cube worker to Linux in such a way that initially "they don't think they're not on Windows."

Ximian's Evolution, with email and calendaring, Ximian Connector to Microsoft's Exchange, a tweaked OpenOffice suite and Explorer-like file browser will help Novell meet that need.

Administration is another vital component says Nugent: he sees Ximian's Red Carpet as being as important as Evolution in making Linux desktops manageable and affordable in enterprise, government and educational settings. Nugent calls it the 'holistic approach': given that Novell continues to generate around a billion dollars in annual revenue, Novell's brand of 'holism' - based on understanding the needs of users and administrators - may cause some to rethink that once much-maligned term.

Nugent thinks that making email and calendaring, as well as productivity apps, behave in ways that offer comfort to real-world workers, is crucial. So are things like making cut-and-paste work everywhere and hiding parts of the file system best left to "guys with ponytails." He also sees a file system browser that "just does what you expect it to" whether the underlying files are on SAMBA or NFS or Netware shares as "vital."

Single-application-oriented users like call centers may be the first departments to migrate to Linux, after the techies. Nugent also thinks that Europeans, with their deep distrust of Microsoft, may be among the first to jump, although North America is not far behind, in his opinion. Novell is already involved in trials with 'very large' enterprise customers.

Nugent is not alone among Big Corp execs in seeing an imminent opportunity for the Linux desktop. Sun's VP of Software Jonathan Schwartz spent most of his LinuxWorld keynote touting Mad Hatter, Sun's cleaned-up, cubicle-ized desktop (also featuring Evolution) that will roll out RSN, maybe in September.

Indeed, LinuxWorld saw desktop optimism from Red Hat, SuSE and Xandros to name three. HP and IBM execs could even be overheard saying that Linux on the desktop was 'very close' or, even 'there.' One commentator noted that the 'suits' are suddenly bigger believers in the Linux desktop than the 'geeks.'

Steve Ballmer has famously been quoted as saying that the only thing that keeps him up nights is Linux. Until recently, many would have thought that the reference was to Linux as a server: suddenly, it's the desktop, Microsoft's main stronghold, that seems vulnerable, and it's not just the Linux faithful who are preaching this gospel.

Strategists at large and deep-pocketed corporations think there just might be something to this Linux desktop stuff, after all.


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