Desktop Linux products on parade

Attendees of the Desktop Linux Summit held last week in San Diego spent two days reveling in the growing number of games, PCs, software applications, and peripherals that are now compatible with the underdog operating system.

Designed to spread the word about Linux on the desktop and to teach the almost 550 attendees about the open-source operating system, the show also served as a platform for new product announcements, including several from the show's host, Lindows.com Inc.'s LindowsOS.

Via Technologies Inc. played host to one of the most popular booths at the show, where attendees could see the company's own reference version of a Media Center PC. Built and sold by Medialand Systems Inc.'s IDotPC.com, the Hi-Fi PC is housed in a fancy brushed-aluminum box the size of a toaster.

The system, which includes a subwoofer and two funky 2.1-channel satellite speakers, plays DVDs, MP3s, and CDs. Due by mid-March, the machine will sell in the sub-US$700 rage. Although this model doesn't have a monitor, TV tuner, or functionality as a personal video recorder, other vendors, including Lindows, have signed on to build their own versions of the PC that may include those features.

Wireless Ways

Among the vendors showing off Lindows-specific offerings was Ricochet. The company demonstrated a wireless modem compatible with LindowsOS 3 and many other distributions of Linux. Ricochet's wireless service--down for a time after company turmoil--is back up and running in limited areas for US45 per month.

Plug-and-play support has been an ongoing struggle for the Linux operating system. However, LindowsOS executives promise that the operating system will work better with Smart Media readers, USB key chain devices, and digital cameras.

Epson America Inc. showed off printers that are already supported under Linux and said it is currently working on Linux support for the company's new multifunction device, the CX5200.

Linux OS maker SuSE Linux AG was also in attendance, highlighting its latest distribution, SuSE Linux Office Desktop. The package offers a CrossOver plug-in that lets you run Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint 97 or 2000 under Linux.

Change of Opinion Also highlighted at the show were the noticeable leaps Linux has made in usability on the desktop. Linux backers say that the key to making a dent in Windows' 90-plus percent market share is continuing to improve the operating system's ease of use.

As an early Lindows adopter and member of the Insider program, Aubrey Stewart, president of the Tri City Computer Club, says the operating system is now so easy to work with that he has introduced it to several nontechnical users. He thinks Lindows is on the right track, but admits he hasn't uninstalled Windows completely, yet.

Another attendee, the head of technology at a large firm, says he deployed Linux on the server side and is now deploying Red Hat Linux on a few desktops. He says his employees found the operating system easy to use, especially given the number of applications now available that offer functionality similar to Microsoft counterparts. Given that, he thinks his firm will be deploying more Linux software on the desktop in the near future.

Down to Business

The conference also included sessions that provided attendees with a desktop-focused source of information about Linux, including how to deploy it, where it's going, and tips on business applications and migration. At the Home and Entertainment session, Gavriel State, chief executive officer and chief technology officer of Transgaming Technologies Inc., Jay Moore of Garage Games, and Chris Pirillo of Tech TV discussed the state of games for Linux.

"Games are historically one of the most important factors in adoption," State says. "Microsoft went out of its way to get developers."

Transgaming Technologies ports Windows games to Linux. Transgaming has created WineX, an implementation of the Microsoft DirectX application programming interface that enables Windows games to run under Linux.

With WineX, a US5-per-month subscription service, it's possible to buy popular games like Grand Theft Auto, Max Payne, War Craft 3, and the Sims and run them on Linux. In addition, State mentioned that a new release, WineX 3, will be out soon and will make it easier to configure, install, and run games under Linux.

At the Business End Users session, Scott Testa, chief executive officer of Mindbridge, a software firm, told attendees about the benefits of using Linux at his company. As standard equipment, employees get a US199 Lindows PC.

"I'm not a Microsoft basher or a Linux zealot," he says, "but converting to Lindows and Linux was financial."

Testa gave two reasons why Linux on the desktop is successful for Mindbridge: The company doesn't have a lot of legacy applications, and it made no investment in traditional Microsoft applications.

Because the company is relatively young and rapidly growing, it didn't have an infrastructure in place; the only application that didn't have a Linux solution was the sales staff's customer relationship management (CRM) solution. At the moment, those are the only employees running Windows; however, the CRM software is available in browser-based form, so Testa says that once those folks are converted, the company will be an all-Linux shop.

Stealing the Spotlight

While the show managed to achieve Lindows CEO and founder Michael Robertson's goal of promoting desktop Linux, it also served as a platform for the company's new offerings: the LindowsFamily PC with Surfsafe, its Media PC, and the Lindows Mobile PC ultraportable. These product announcements did garner the company some flack, however, as some attendees believed the company was veering away from a vendor-neutral show, and several firms (including DesktopLinux.com Inc., Lycoris Inc., and Hewlett-Packard Co.) dropped out.

The US799, gray-and-silver, 2.9-pound ENote Lindows Mobile PC features a 933-MHz VIA C3 processor, 256MB of memory, two USB 2.0 ports, and Firewire and Ethernet connections. It also offers the functionality of the desktop version of LindowsOS but is geared toward the mobile user.

Another product announced at the show, the LindowsFamily PC, protects children from pornographic and other questionable material with Web filtering software from SurfSafe, a subscription service that costs US50 per year. The application comes with LindowsFamily PCs sold at Wal-Mart Stores Inc.; it can also be downloaded from the Lindows Click-and-Run warehouse.

Lindows's new Media PC, based on a VIA motherboard, closely resembles the functionality of Windows Media Center PCs, but lacks a TV tuner and, at US349, costs much less. When you boot up the compact PC, eight seconds later a menu appears; use the remote to select DVD, VCD, or MP3 from the on-screen menu. A newer model, out in March or April, will offer TV tuner and PVR capability as well.

Robertson says that with the US199 basic Wal-Mart PC and the US799 notebook, the goal of Lindows is to push the price envelope. He said some vendors who approached him about creating Lindows laptops were turned away because the hardware would be too expensive.

Lindows won't be pushing any PDAs or tablet PCs, but will stay in the desktop area because that's where the money is, says Robertson. With LindowsOS, he also sees future PCs tailored for specific areas--churches, schools, or businesses--and potentially unique form factors as well.

As far as the controversy surrounding the conference and the companies that dropped out over the vendor-neutrality issue, Robertson says it's impossible not to cause an uproar in the Linux community. "We're in the unique situation of being an umpire and a player," he says.

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