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,”” says Warren Shiau, research manager for the software research program at IDC Canada in Toronto.

“”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 Co. unveiled its new laptop earlier this month. The notebook comes preloaded with Novell Inc.’s SuSE Linux. 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,”” says Evan Leibovitch, president of the Linux Professional Institute, based in Brantford, Ont.

Leibovitch emphasizes Linux still has a ways to go before it can challenge 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, Leibovitch says.

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, Shiau says. There are still “”tons”” of Linux desktop distributions that aren’t interoperable with each other.

“”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.””

With Linux, there isn’t the same kind of “”splintering”” that affected Unix, he says.

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

Novell recently said it would release its new corporate Linux version by the fall.

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

Linux’s foray into the desktop world won’t be “”a big bang,”” he adds. 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 says. The same is true for call centres because operators aren’t reliant on Microsoft applications.

Leibovitch says the scientific community is already making the jump from Unix to Linux, along with several large brokerage houses 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, he says.

However, Alec Taylor, senior manager of platform strategy at Microsoft Canada, says 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 says.

For example, when a user spells a word incorrectly in OpenOffice’s word program, no alternate spellings are offered.

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

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