Software vendors are releasing more and more products based on the Linux open-source operating system, but desktop Linux faces an all-but-hopeless battle for mass-market user mindshare.
Corel has launched its own version of Linux, and has signed a bundling deal with motherboard manufacturer PC Chips. It will ship a Linux-based version of its WordPerfect Office Suite next February, followed by the Corel Graphics Suite in mid-2000. Corel is part of an alliance of vendors and developer groups including Lotus, Gnome, and KDE, which will release its K Office suite in the second quarter of 2000.
Corel and its band are confident they can emulate Linux's predicted success as a server operating system. They expect to ship applications and a series of Linux interfaces for the desktop in the first half of 2000.
Is this a ship of fools? Corel, remember, fell embarrassingly on its face by jumping on the Java bandwagon far too soon, disastrously rewriting applications in the object-oriented language. Desktop Linux faces massive obstacles, including corporate conservatism and questions over integration with existing applications.
Corel says the ground has been prepared with Applix's recently launched Applix Office for Linux 4.4.2 and Sun Microsystems' StarOffice office productivity suite. Yet at least one leading analyst, GartnerGroup, dismisses StarOffice as a marketing stunt.
Derik Belair, a Corel brand manager, claims that desktop Linux offers "power, performance and stability while reducing the cost of running a desktop, which is business's biggest expense."
The problem for businesses is that Microsoft has no plans to port its applications to Linux. Researcher IDC says just 40,000 users in western Europe will adopt Linux on the desktop, compared with more than four million if Microsoft ported to Linux.
Organisations which have standardised on Microsoft technologies see no reason to integrate a new operating system into their infrastructure, particularly one that is relatively unproven.
"Why would we want to replace Microsoft with something that isn't even fully tested on the desktop? We have too many boxes to make it feasible," says David Agarwal, senior analyst with retailer House of Fraser.
Sticking with Windows
IDC analyst Kirsten Ludvigsen says interoperability problems with Microsoft applications will also slow down Linux adoption. "Linux is not simple to use. It is very complex, and because of that most businesses would want to keep running Windows, which means using a Windows emulator," she says. This would mean having a dual-boot PC, which Ludvigsen says will be too time-consuming to make it a serious option.
"The only companies that will consider it on the desktop will be those that are so miffed with Microsoft, they will do anything to get rid of it," says Ludvigsen.
Linux faces another problem - the move by many users towards browser and server-based computing. Jim Moffat, product marketing manager for Lotus Domino, says this downgrades the importance of desktop operating systems. "Eventually we will get to a point where it doesn't matter what's on the desktop because the content is on the server," he argues, with perhaps a hint of self-interest.
Desktop Linux must also avoid the problem of fragmentation, which has dogged Unix for 25 years. Unix has scores of variants, which multiply support and development costs for software vendors. Linux creator Linus Torvalds says the Unix community has learned from past experience.
"Twenty-five years of Unix history means people are aware that fragmentation is bad in the long run. There's a huge psychological barrier," he says. Yet no-one can guarantee against Linux fragmenting.
Thanks to the highly hyped but relative success of Linux on servers, desktop Linux software vendors are upbeat. Users, however, should beware. For most organisations, desktop Linux is strictly for the birds.
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