The much-awaited breakthrough year for the open source desktop may never come

Ever since I became involved in open source in the mid-’90s, every year has been proclaimed the year of Linux (or something like that) by some clever commentators or analysts. History is already proving such predictions wrong, as there has never been a single year in which open source software made some magical leap from obscurity to the IT mainstream. Of course there were significant milestones, such as when Linux caught the attention of Microsoft and IBM for very different reasons. But there isn’t any year that can be offered as a definitive breakout.

The prediction cycle has started again, this time on the issue of the Linux desktop. When is the breakout year? I don’t think there will be one here either, especially since the growth of the open source desktop is a slow process that will owe its progress as much to inertia as technology. No matter how good the alternatives are, the IT world will continue to be populated by aversion to change.

Recent milestones of the open source desktop have been quiet but significant. The ones that made headlines are the commitments of Novell and Red Hat to provide commercial support in new desktop offerings. However, some other very important ones went under many peoples’ radar, yet may have a greater affect on the acceptability of Linux screens in the office.

Offering pizazz that can have Linux looking more like Mac than Windows, both Novell and Red Hat have introduced technology that takes advantage of generally unused features on new PC video cards. The Novell version, called XGL, was publicly released fairly recently — while videos of the demos are pretty impressive, it’s possible to get a better taste of where this is going. An Australian group has released a Linux distribution called Kororaa which can be downloaded onto a CD which boots a demonstration of XGL. Kororaa is a “live CD,” meaning that it boots and runs a version of Linux that shows off XGL without touching your hard disk. This is worth a look because the videos really don’t do it justice.

Another significant milestone is the new release of the Linux Standard Base, which is now extending its definition to include desktop facilities. This development is extremely important for software developers targeting the Linux desktop, and the LSB standard offers that all-important single target. This dovetails nicely with the work of the Portland Project, a broadly-backed effort to help resolve some of the technical issues between the open source world’s diverse set of desktop frameworks. As Portland and the LSB progress, it just won’t be a big deal whether you use the KDE interface, GNOME or something else. That’s good news for developers, who will continue to supplement the ever-improving OpenOffice, Firefox and Thunderbird with better business applications, multimedia, and interoperability. This too is more evolution than revolution, with new releases providing ever-better incentives to switch without creating much “killer app” type hoopla. Even Lotus Notes has made the leap. To be sure, this is a long process, and it’s quite possible that Linux and its associated programs will never have anything resembling a “breakout year.” But that’s OK, the community is in it for the long haul.

Evan Leibovitch is executive director of CLUE, the Canadian Association for Open Source (www.cluecan.ca) and a longtime proponent of open standards and open systems. You can find more information on the issues discussed above at www.telly.org.
evan@telly.org

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