Linux takes Microsoft rivalry to the desktop

Linux is poised to threaten Microsoft’s dominance in the desktop and notebook market, assuming it can overcome interoperability issues, according to experts.

It’s only a matter of time, they say, before the open source operating system gives the U.S. software giant a serious run

for its money.

“”We’re starting to see things come together for Linux,”” said Warren Shiau, research manager for the software research program at IDC Canada.

“”While we don’t really see Linux challenging Microsoft on the desktop now, all the things are falling into place for it to have the potential to mount a serious challenge (in the near future).””

Shiau’s comments come after Hewlett-Packard unveiled its new laptop earlier this month. The notebook comes preloaded with SuSE Linux, which reportedly makes HP the first major laptop-maker to offer such a product. Other vendors are expected to follow suit in the coming months.

“”This is just the latest in a long series of milestones and events that have been slowly eating away at the status quo,”” said Evan Leibovitch, president of the Linux Professional Institute based in Brantford, Ont.

Leibovitch emphasizes Linux still has a way to go before it can impact Microsoft’s 95 per cent share of the desktop market. “”But the signs are all happening. It’s on its way.””

IDC has already observed that Linux has surpassed Macintosh on the computer desktop, added Leibovitch. He also points to a number of companies that have successfully developed versions of Linux for non-technical users, including New York-based Xandros Corp., which is developing a desktop operating system based on Linux technology.

However, many challenges still remain for Linux, said Shiau. There are still “”tons”” of Linux desktop distributions that aren’t interoperable.

“”Imagine there were 100 different versions of Windows and they didn’t work together. Microsoft wouldn’t be the dominant company it is now.””

But Leibovitch insists the suggestion that Linux has operability challenges is “”bogus,”” adding those who write Linux applications adhere to universal Linux standards.

“”So you have situations where someone makes an application and it will run on every standard-compliant version of Linux. And most of (the applications our there) are (compliant),”” he said.

With Linux, there isn’t the same kind of “”splintering”” that affected Unix, where something that was written for Sun, for example, wouldn’t work on IBM, he added.

Despite Shiau’s reservations about interoperability between different versions of Linux, he is optimistic that any wrinkles will be ironed out thanks to such companies as Novell.

Earlier this month, Novell said it would release its new corporate Linux version by the fall. The version merges its two newly-acquired Linux products: SuSE, a Linux distribution, and Ximian, a toolset to manage Linux-based applications. It will be the first time the two have been paired in the same package.

“”I think all that functionality, in terms of having the management tools, the applications, and the (operating system) is coming together,”” said Shiau.

Linux’s foray into the desktop world won’t be “”a big bang,”” he added. Rather, it will be very gradual, with early adopters including scientists and engineers who currently use Unix workstations.

For these users, the transition to Linux is virtually seamless because of the similarities between the two, he said. The same is true for call centres because operators aren’t reliant on such Microsoft applications as Word and Excel to do their jobs, he added.

Leibovitch said the scientific community is already making the jump from Unix to Linux, along with several large brokerage houses in New York and the municipal governments of Munich and Vienna.

In fact, the only difficulty Linux encounters on the desktop is running specialty and industry vertical software that has been written exclusively for Windows, said Leibovitch. The other challenge is games.

However, Alec Taylor, senior manager of platform strategy at Microsoft Canada, said more challenges exist for Linux than Leibovitch lets on.

“”Things that you take for granted that will work just don’t work (on Linux applications),”” he said.

For example, Linux’s OpenOffice Calc, which is Microsoft’s version of Excel, allows you to build pivot tables but they don’t pivot, he said. As well, when a user spells a word wrong in OpenOffice’s word program, no alternate spellings are offered.

“”So I think the value of Microsoft on the desktop is a … technically-sound business solution that does what you need it to do. There’s not a lot of burden (on the user) to figure out how things work together.””

As for early Linux adopters, such as engineers and call centre operators, representing a challenge to Microsoft’s market share, Taylor begs to differ.

Engineers who might switch over to Linux represent “”a tiny fragment of the marketplace,”” he said. Taylor added there is a high level productivity that can be gained by call centre operators if they use office applications that connect Word and Excel into back-end databases.

Shiau said Microsoft is responding to the Linux threat by offering new products that are given away for relatively little.

“”If you look at all the new Express edition of a lot of products that go out for free to users, you get a lot of functionality in what essentially is a free package. The purpose of all this can only be to gain wider distribution of Microsoft products — to just get it into people’s hands.””

Yet, Taylor suggests such moves would be part of Microsoft’s strategy regardless of whether Linux was around or not.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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