Open Enterprise: Desktop Linux remains hard sell

Major software updates are always disruptive, and with as many as six separate SKUs for the U.S. market alone, Windows Vista will be no different. As if the launch plans for Vista weren't confusing enough, Microsoft execs have played up the steep hardware requirements of the operating system's bells and whistles, prompting many IT managers to wonder whether the upgrade might signal a jumping-off point for shops that have grown tired of life under Redmond's collective thumb.

It's only natural, then, that Linux vendors should take this opportunity to tout the open source alternative. Novell's latest enterprise desktop packaging of Suse Linux, for one, looks impressive indeed. Novell claims to have referenced some 1,500 hours of video of users interacting with Linux systems in order to refine the GUI on this latest offering, and the results, according to Novell spokespeople, have performed favorably in usability surveys when compared with Windows.

Don't roll out your tattered old "Year of Desktop Linux" banner just yet, though. It's still premature to expect a landslide of support from the all-important hardware vendors.

Kudos to Dell CEO Michael Dell for speaking candidly with's Stephen J. Vaughan Nichols on this issue. Conspiracy theories aside, it seems that Dell's reasons for not putting more energy behind Linux on the desktop are simple and -- dare I say it? -- make a lot of sense.

According to Mr. Dell, his company simply can't afford to support all the desktop Linux options that are out there. If you think six versions of Vista are hard to keep track of, try all the various versions of Lin spire, Man driv a, Red Hat, Suse, Ubuntu, and who knows how many others. Although they all may share a common kernel, each distribution differs from the others in significant ways. And, Dell says, in such a fragmented market it's not his place to take sides.

This is a legitimate problem, and one that deserves a lot of attention from the industry if Linux is to emerge as a viable alternative to Windows desktops. The way I see it, there are two ways around the issue.

One is for some courageous hardware maker to do what Dell is unwilling to do and take a stand. It's become common practice for server vendors to narrow their support down to the "big two" enterprise Linux vendors. An ambitious manufacturer could take it one step further: "We sell Linux desktops and they come with Ubuntu, period." Of course, from there you're just a step away from Apple-style integrated hardware and OS offerings, such as I've advocated before in this column.

The other option is for IT managers to simply give up on the idea that hardware and OS support should be had with a single phone call. Let's face it: If you're going to install what remains a specialty OS, it only makes sense that you should get your primary support for that OS from dedicated specialists. Let the best-supported distribution win, and maybe eventually the Dells and HPs of the world will catch up with proper support offerings of their own.

Even this isn't as simple as it sounds, however. For starters, it means customers must have access to top quality, name-brand hardware that's free from the so-called Microsoft Tax. And even then, it places an undue burden on systems administrators to determine whether a given distribution will run at all on each specific hardware configuration.

But these problems aren't insurmountable. I have some ideas of my own as to how they might be solved, but I'll save them for next week's column.

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