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Desktop Linux: If we build it, will they come?

By Dave Rosenberg, OSDL
January 13, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Linux has made major inroads on servers and in data centers running both open-source and proprietary applications on millions of computers worldwide. We've recently seen the rise of Linux on mobile devices. But the Linux desktop remains elusive. We know it's out there, but it only now seems to be approaching the tipping point.
Where is desktop Linux at the moment? Right now we see end-user Linux in fixed function and transactional systems and technical workstations. Transactional systems tend to be next-generation Unix replacements that connect to Linux and mainframe back-end systems. Technical workstations are largely in the developer arena.
Over the past 18 months, we have seen growth in desktop Linux usage, spurred by new more user-friendly distros like Ubuntu and new versions of Firefox and OpenOffice. But the holy grail -- business users -- are still few and far between. At what point will ISVs port applications to Linux, and is there enough demand?
Market interest is there. If the results of Open Source Development Lab's recent desktop Linux survey are any indication, the end-user market may be more ready for Linux on the desktop than most industry watchers were expecting. In fact, employee demand and matching competitors' usage were cited as the top two reasons for deploying Linux on the desktop, disproving conventional wisdom that desktop Linux is chosen for security and low cost.
To a large extent, the value of Linux on the desktop and associated open-source desktop applications is to limit Microsoft lock-in. It's in the technology world's best interest for there to be an alternative to Microsoft's monopoly on desktops. Linux is the obvious choice for its openness, security, flexibility and low cost. But there are still technical and functional barriers that must be addressed before desktop Linux can go mainstream.
Getting comfortable with Linux
Linux tends to be perceived as Unix's geeky, more in-your-face younger brother. Bolder and brasher, but the user interface is still immature compared to Mac OS or Windows.
One of the biggest desktop Linux inconveniences is the lack of support for existing proprietary applications from big vendors such as Adobe, Autodesk and Intuit. The same can be said for the lack of drivers for plug-and-play functionality related to Wi-Fi, PDAs and digital cameras. These may all be a burden right now, but they are solvable problems.
While it's highly unlikely that we'll see Microsoft applications running on Linux in the near future, credible replacements for applications that are Windows-oriented are needed.
When the OSDL last month gathered more than 70 Linux desktop architects, including developers from Intel, Mozilla,

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