April 6, 2004

Organizations say hurdles remain for desktop Linux

Author: Jay Lyman

Speakers and attendees at the open source events of Portland's InnoTech Conference last week concurred that Linux was at home in the enterprise, handling heavier database demands and other workloads and proving itself on a number of platforms. They also anticipated that Linux would finally hit the desktop in more significant increments, but not until open source developers deal with some obvious deficiencies.

Jim Wasko, program manager for the IBM Linux Technology Center's strategic alliance, reported that Linux is seeing growth on a variety of platforms including mainframes at New York's Marist College and the U.S. Department of Energy; in enterprises beyond the edge of the datacenter by Warner Brothers, Ritchie Brothers Auctioneers, and others; and of course in government, with the U.S. Navy, China, Brazil, India, Germany, and Russia, among other nations.

Wasko said while the first wave of Linux put it on print, file, and Web servers, a second wave has now hit, pushing it to commercial clusters, software development and collaboration, e-commerce, industry, and desktop applications.

"It's moving into the mission-critical operating platforms," Wasko said.

The Big Blue representative praised collaborative efforts on Linux and open source, including the Open Source Development Lab. "OSDL is a good environment," Wasko said. "It's vendor-neutral. They're more on the religious side -- they love it and they don't care if we make money, and that's a good place."

Echoing the rosy sentiments of collaboration, Hewlett-Packard's Keith Packard (no relation to the founding family, but I'll bet he doesn't get pushed around at the office) outlined the desktop gains Linux and open source have made in the last few years. Packard said there has been dramatic change -- not in
technology but in public acceptance.

Packard said desktop Linux moves such as those by Sun in China and OSDL's desktop initiative group are lending credibility to Linux desktops as well as driving them. However, despite recent noise from Novell and HP, many customers do not announce their transitions loudly.

"Most don't want to be named for fear of calls from their Microsoft sales folks," Packard said. "It is interesting -- it's not bad things happening that they're afraid of, it's Microsoft sales reps."

That alone might drive any clear-thinking CIO away from the Windows world, but Packard nonetheless pointed out some areas where Linux desktops are lagging. "Some of us use proprietary finance software," he said. "It just doesn't exist in open source. The data is so critical, it's difficult to get an application like that started. It's still a weakness." Packard also noted open source printing applications were improving, but
were not quite ready for prime time yet.

Those are the kind of issues that are holding back executives and public sector IT geeks such as Oregon Department of Human Services information officer Laer Haider. "We're still waiting for the [Linux] desktop before we can put it into production," Haider complained. "We don't believe Linux is to the point where it's easily deployed, managed, and maintained. We have scientists who want open access, but need to be able to get into it
remotely without a lot of strained tech support."

Ed Sawicki, executive director of the Portland Area Networking User Group and founder of Unix/Linux consultancy BizNix, said the biggest problem is that while open source has applications that are robust enough for the corporate datacenter, it offers a different user experience that does not work or look like Windows.

"It's the compatibility issue," Sawicki said. "I've had people ready to go and they get scared off when they're asking for me to promise they'll still be able to read a Microsoft Word document. I tell them I can't control that, Microsoft does. Many don't go because of that."

Sawicki -- who bubbles with giddiness as he explains IT nightmares consulting clients experience after disregarding his Linux and open source recommendations -- said the open source industry should move forward with its own word processing document instead of trying to adapt to Microsoft's.

"What people should really be focusing on is open standards in file formats, not Microsoft-compatible, but an industry-standard word processing format," Sawicki said. "If you look at any application category, there is usually far more in open source because Microsoft has already swatted up all of the competitors, whereas in the Linux world, there's lots of diversity."

"We're not really lacking the applications," Sawicki added. "We're lacking applications that Windows users want."


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