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

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]