LINUX EXPO - Linux works its way toward prime time

In the last 12 months, Linux has become less of a buzzword and more of a reality, with companies ranging from IBM to Silicon Graphics throwing weight behind the open source operating system. However, it is still struggling to enter the mainstream arena, according to users and Linux professionals here at Linux Expo 2000.

Although the operating system has become a real alternative for the server market, with vendors offering it on a range of higher-end machines, the consensus here on the show floor was that there are still interface and application issues that keep it off the desktop.

"Companies are still trying to make it easier to use," said David Patrick Cheng, IT officer at Imperial College in London. "Linux will have to continue its path, heading more towards GUI (graphical user interface) and away from text-based operation," he added. "Users don't want to type a lot of commands."

Linux companies also need to make the operating system more practical for everyday use, Cheng said. "They need more driver support on hardware, more applications and improvement on plug and play," he added.

"People also want to be able to convert their files to Linux and not have to start over from scratch," Cheng said.

Some companies have already started working on that problem.

"In the period of the last year, we've really started to see products for Linux rolling out," Alastair Kergon, of the UK Unix User Group (UKUUG), said. "We see lots of commercial spam (e-mail) from companies pushing out products that are compatible with (Microsoft Corp.) Office."

With these compatible products, users can bring documents created with applications such as Microsoft Word and PowerPoint over to a Linux environment and view or modify the documents using a Linux program, instead of having to start over from scratch.

Linux distributors agree that interface and applications issues have to be addressed by developers and manufacturers.

"The changes to make Linux accessible on the desktop will be in the user interfaces of things like Gnome (Gnu Network Object Model Environment) and KDE (K Desktop Environment), rather than in anything we do," Lance Davis, a consultant with UK-based Linux company Definite Software PLC, said. Gnome and KDE are open source graphical user interfaces. In the open source method of development, developers, many of them working on an unpaid basis, collaborate to modify and update the code.

"The biggest problem for Linux on the desktop remains its lack of applications," Davis said. "Sure there are six games for Linux, but after that, what's next?" he added.

Definite Software still concentrates on the server market, but it is likely to aim more at desktop users within the next two years, he said.

"I do know a lot of people who use (Linux) for e-mail, word processing and Web access, but I couldn't recommend it to someone whose teenage children just want a computer to play games on," Davis added.

The future of Linux lies in embedded processors and on servers, Davis said. "Will it ever become an alternative to Windows on the desktop?" he pondered. "I think people will use it on the desktop, but will it become the desktop for everyone is the question."

However, the main issues that users have with the operating system are the same as what Linux companies claim to have been working on over the past year.

"The quality of the user interfaces (of different Linux versions) have greatly increased, and companies are producing products fairly comparable to those available on Windows," said Bernd Wagner, vice president of European operations, Linux division, for Applix GmbH.

Applix makes a product called Applixware Office, which is a Linux alternative to Microsoft Corp.'s Office for Windows suite. "Because of things like identical key bindings (key combinations such as Control-C for copy) and the look and feel of the program, you don't even realize you're using Linux," Wagner added.

As long as the interface looks familiar, some companies don't care what the operating system actually is as long as the price is right, according to Martin Peterson, technical director of Linux shopping portal LinuxIT.com.

"We just shipped 170 workstations running Linux to a large company," he said. "It was a cost-efficient deal; the only thing that was important was price," he said. "And when we can give them workstations running Applixware for half the price of a workstation running Microsoft, that becomes the bottom line."

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