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Demand your Linux rights

Linux kernel updates give it a technical edge–but is it enough to capture the desktop? Linux Advisor hed: Demand your Linux rights dek: Linux kernel updates give it a technical edge-but is it enough to capture the desktop? by Maggie Biggs

The 2.4 version of the Linux kernel has been out for some time now, and with it comes a bevy of improvements. Linux is now a more mature operating system than it was just a few years ago, and widespread support from the open-source community and industry heavyweights, such as IBM, brings Linux front and center.

There is no doubt that Linux has made huge inroads in the server arena. In fact, a recent IDC report estimates that in the next two years, Linux will have captured more than 30 percent of the server market. Recent additions to the kernel, including support for 64-bit architectures and multiprocessor systems, make the operating system even more compelling for higher-end servers.

Likewise, Linux is a good fit for the emerging mobile and embedded-device market. The kernel is small and lightweight enough to power post-PC devices, such as Linux-based PDA Yopy, yet the operating system is flexible enough to grow and change as new types of devices are introduced.

Anyone who has worked with Linux will tell you that it’s also a neat match for the desktop. So why hasn’t Linux taken off on the desktop as it has on servers and embedded devices? The answer: user awareness.

I recently took an unscientific poll among several friends and colleagues regarding the use of Linux on the desktop. The prevailing opinion was that the operating system was difficult to use and install. Many had tried to install Linux on desktop systems a few years back, and their opinions generally reflected that previous experience.

I admit that when I first installed Linux on a desktop machine many moons ago it was a tear-your-hair-out experience. But that was then. The Linux kernel and the major Linux distributions have improved to the point where an installation of Linux on the desktop today is easier and less time-consuming than installing competing desktop operating systems.

In addition, many users don’t want to install their own operating systems. Several of the people I polled simply used whatever came with the desktop system they purchased.

So, the Linux community needs to focus not only on producing great technology, but also on increasing end-user awareness and partnerships with major desktop OEMs and systems integrators.

Testing the waters

To help change the perception of end-users, I decided to try two tests. First, I selected a colleague who always used whatever operating system came with the desktop he purchased.

I loaded the SuSE 7.1 Linux distribution and StarOffice on a Sony Vaio notebook and lent it to my colleague for two weeks. I challenged him to use it for all of the computing tasks he normally undertook. After the two weeks, he reported back that, indeed, he was able to perform every task he normally would have done using his other desktop system.

His experience was very positive. He was able to browse the Web, send and receive e-mail, create office documents, and the like. The system seemed fast to him and it didn’t crash like his current desktop system often did. In addition, he liked the available options for customizing the desktop.

This person was not a power user. He relied on the graphical interface to interact with Linux. He typifies a large segment of the end-user population. User interfaces, such as KDE and GNOME, have made great strides forward in simplifying user interaction with Linux systems.

By the way, at the end of the two weeks, I had a hard time getting my notebook back from my colleague. He is now seeking a desktop provider that will sell him a system with Linux preloaded.

Take 2

My second test was a bit trickier. I have another colleague who tried to install Linux a few years back. His previous experience was not a positive one, and he was skeptical of Linux.

He had a Gateway system with two partitions. The first contained an installation of Windows while the second one was empty. I convinced him to attempt an installation of SuSE 7.1 on that second partition.

The installation went off without a hitch, and SuSE’s automated installer–YaST–did a marvelous job of automatically detecting his hardware and walking him through the installation process. He chose to set up a desktop with support for office documents.

After installation, he said that he was surprised at how automated everything was and how quickly he was able to install Linux. He especially liked the fact that he only needed to reboot once at the end of the process, as opposed to the multiple reboots often required with other desktop operating-system installations.

Like my other colleague, he liked the graphical user interface–KDE in this case. He was pleased to see that devices could automatically mount, and was surprised that he could access data on his Windows partition. Then I showed him how to execute Windows applications from his Linux partition.

After spending two weeks with the newly installed Linux on his second partition, my colleague also reported positive feedback. I was able to change his perception of using Linux on the desktop.

The results

I used my polling and these two tests to gauge the issues keeping Linux from the desktop. What I found is that the general end-user population has certain perceptions of Linux, many of which are outdated.

In addition, many casual computer users don’t want to think about their operating system or take the time to endure a huge learning curve to use it. The only thing most users want to do is to buy, plug in, and use their machines to manage their everyday computing tasks.

Clearly, Linux is more prepared to tackle the desktop than ever before. Updates to the kernel, as well as packaging by distributors, make the operating system quite appealing for desktops (as well as for servers and embedded devices).

What you can do

If you use Linux, there are some active steps you can take to help the operating system gain desktop market share. Talk to your friends and colleagues about Linux. Have them try it on your computer, or convince them to load it on a partition on their system. Challenge them to use it for two weeks and give you some feedback. Offer to help them if they need assistance or have questions.

Visit local retail computer stores and see if they sell Linux in boxed form. I recently visited a local computer outlet that did not carry Linux. I asked for the manager and asked why it didn’t carry Linux. He asked me what it was, and I explained. The next week, I returned to the same store and found three Linux distributions on sale.

Send e-mail to providers of desktop systems that do not offer Linux as a preloaded option. Tell them that you’d love to buy one of their systems, but you’ll only do so if they offer a system preloaded with Linux. If these providers receive enough e-mail requests, they will begin to listen and start offering Linux distributions for retail sale.

Linux undoubtedly has the technical capabilities to be a great desktop operating system. Perhaps what the operating system needs now is a little evangelizing to widen its appeal. Will you help?

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