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Editor's Note: Who's Getting Behind the Desktop?

Oct 22, 2004, 23:30 (28 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

"Linux on the desktop, contrary to earlier reports, isn't dead. It is very much alive and kicking. It is growing little by little in the home and corporate arenas, so things are on the right track.

But for as much as the community, both commercial and free, wants the Linux desktop to prosper, are they really doing enough to promote it? Their words say yes, but their actions? Well...

In the last few months, I have noted a slow movement away from strong support for getting desktop Linux adopted on a wider basis, and more of an apathetic "it'll get here when it gets here" mentality. This mentality is not against Linux on the desktop, but its neutral nature sure isn't helping it, either.

Let me give you a recent example of this trend.

Earlier this week, an eWeek interview with Ted Haeger, Novell's Linux Desktop Director of Marketing, revealed that the Massachusetts company is contemplating a split of its Linux offerings, similar to the arrangement between Red Hat Enterprise Server and Fedora.

SUSE Linux, it was hinted, will be the "community" offering and the new Novell distro would be the enterprise offering (presumably based on SUSE Enterprise). A few of you have already commented that such a move would not be welcome, and that is certainly understandable.

No one has demonstrated to me that the Red Hat/Fedora split has really benefited the quality of what used to be called Red Hat Linux. The latest build of Fedora Core 3 I installed last week was still pretty close to Core 2, and I have yet to find anything that really stands out, other than Evolution 2.0, and that's Ximian's baby.

Naturally, the split between a commercial, enterprise distribution and a community-friendly distribution makes a lot of sense on the business side. It lets a company sell hard and fast in the mega-bucks enterprise channels while letting a vast legacy user base play with and tweak the underlying technology. But I think the overall impression this approach gives to potential desktop enterprise customers is "Linux is not quite ready for desktops, but we can fill your server room with as many boxes as you want." If Novell were to go down this path, and it seems very plausible, it will just serve to reinforce this perception.

Commercial distros, which is the moniker tend to I apply to Red Hat, Novell, and Mandrakesoft's products, often follow a curious pattern: they announce or try a "radical new approach to the Linux desktop." They push this hype until just before the release date, then reveal that their radical idea was either not-so-radical (Red Hat's Bluecurve theme for both GNOME and KDE) or non-existent (Novell's recent backpedal to support only GNOME--now they'll support both environments).

Mandrakesoft, I am happy to say, has not followed this path yet, and I hope they don't. It's kind of unseemly. I am a big believer of doing what you'll say you'll do, or just not say anything at all.

No one in the commercial distro firms, it seems, knows what to do with the Linux desktop. They promote it, they laud it, but they don't take the hard steps to really get it out there.

It's not just the commercial distros, either. The rest of the community--that vast user and developer base that so puzzles the corporations--is also a little skittish about the desktop. They will sing its praises from the highest mountain, but then turn around and sniff disdainfully at distros that are trying to do nothing but get out on the desktop.

Xandros is treated like a half-witted child. They mean well, but they're not really Linux, I have heard many say. And Linspire? They're a pariah in the community. Granted, the actions of the company do not lend for a lot of love, but I also hear people slamming the actual product because it's "too lightweight."

So, ladies and gentlemen, which is it going to be? Do we want the desktop or not?

I am not advocating that we all run out and promote Xandros, Linspire, and all the other desktop distros to the exclusion of anything else. But I don't think we should spend a lot of time trying to tear them down, either.

Personal choice is personal choice. If I like Debian and you like Slackware, that's great. But if I like Xandros, why am I suddenly a second-class Linux citizen?

As for the big commercial distros, I think the time has long since past for you to put your money where your desktop development is. Yes, Windows has a choke hold on the market, but I think the recent prosperous activity of Firefox is enough to demonstrate that people will switch, gladly, if they are offered a superior product.

Will you make a lot of money in desktop sales? No, likely not. Certainly not at first. But someone's got to start somewhere, and you all now have enough name recognition to start getting the desktop word out there.

This won't be easy. Hard choices about resources, both human and financial, will have to be made. For instance, I am wondering if it may be time for the commercial distros to start picking one environment or the other to offer. Though in the past I have advocated diversity, I think that a commercial desktop distribution has got to have either KDE or GNOME--not both. Diversity is great, but has the constant desire to please everyone in the community undermined the success of the Linux desktop?

Red Hat has toyed with this idea in the past, and Novell just did again, but both have shied away from it. It may be time to approach this idea again.

There will be other, similarly hard steps that may have to be taken to get Linux on the desktop. If that is really what the community wants.

The choices are coming. Is everyone ready?

[Another editor's Note: Reader Cedric Godart has provided a French translation of this article at ToolLinux.com. -BKP]