Linux desktop products grow

Reports of Linux's death on the desktop have been greatly exaggerated. So says a small group of vendors at LinuxWorld Expo last week. Surrounded by scores of booths hyping everything from a "secure server-side Java platform" to "parallel supercompilers," we found several offerings proving that the dream of an open source desktop is nowhere near dead, and that users are not about to be neglected by the open source community.

KDE e.V. League Chair Andreas Pour gave a grand tour of the recently released KDE 2.2 desktop and its companion office suite, KOffice 1.1. (Most major Linux distributions ship with both packages; these new versions are free for download from their respective Web sites.) KOffice's use of KDE's component architecture has matured to the point where Pour could show a complex chart embedded in a spreadsheet that was itself embedded in a word processing document. None of the KOffice applications are as feature-complete as commercial offerings on either the Linux or Windows platforms, but they continue to grow in power and depth. The word processor, KWord, currently lacks support for footnotes, endnotes, and hyphenation, but makes complex layouts simple.

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KDE's new print dialog box, coupled with its new printer set-up routines, make configuring a printer easy, even if it's connected to a network. Updates to Konqueror, KDE's file and Web browser, are particularly impressive, though surprisingly similar to many features of the GNOME desktop's Nautilus. For example, file icons now reflect file contents: Graphics files sport thumbnail icons, text file icons display the first few words in the document, and sound files can be heard with a click. Pour reports that a KDE bug fix release, version 2.2.1, should be available in early September, and that work on KDE 3.0 is already well underway.

Anything But XP

LinuxWorld newcomer HancomLinux Inc., a Korean company with a following in Asia, impressed us with its Linux office suite, HancomOffice 1.5. The current version, priced at US$45, was on sale at the company's booth and is available on its site. The company also demonstrated and handed out free beta copies of version 2.0. Due for release in November, HancomOffice 2.0 will cost $100 and include word processing, spreadsheet, print and video presentation tools, graphics, diagram and flowchart tools, HTML editing, and database software. The word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation programs closely mimic their counterparts in Microsoft Office. The suite's menus, toolbars, keystrokes, and dialog boxes are largely unchanged.

On the other side of the show floor, Ximian Inc. once again attracted droves of attendees with its jungle-themed booth, complete with enormous faux-granite African tiki faces, straw huts, foliage, and plush animals. But the jungle theme wasn't the only thing attracting attendees. Two of Ximian's key additions to the GNOME desktop environment--Red Carpet and Evolution--were in constant demo rotation.

Red Carpet provides a way to download and install software updates and new programs released through the open source community. (Think of it as Windows Update on steroids.) For faster and easier Red Carpet updates, Ximian launched its new Red Carpet Express service. A monthly subscription fee of $9.95 nets you access to high-speed servers for all Red Carpet offerings. Without a subscription, you can still use Red Carpet, but you'll connect to the same mirror sites the rest of the world uses. The result is not always speedy.

Evolution is Ximian's answer to Microsoft Outlook, both in functionality and in look and feel. Booth technicians pointed out Evolution's key features: peer-to-peer calendaring with users of iCalendar, Microsoft Exchange, and Lotus Notes; SMTP, POP, and IMAP support; contact management; and Palm synchronization support. Ximian hasn't set a date for release, but "1.0 is rapidly approaching," according to Nat Friedman, cofounder and vice president of product development.

Both Red Carpet and Evolution are integral parts of Ximian Desktop, Ximian's version of the GNOME desktop environment. All Ximian Desktop components are free for Linux users to download at Ximian's Web site, and a boxed edition was announced this week as well. The $29.95 Standard Edition includes a printed manual and 30 days of Web-based technical support. The $49.95 Professional Edition adds Sun's StarOffice suite and boosts technical support to 90 days.

Xandros Takes Over for Corel

We had high hopes for Corel Corp.'s Linux distribution when it was first released. But Corel has moved in a different direction since then, and Corel Linux OS has been all but abandoned. That will soon change: Xandros Corp., a new company funded mainly by Linux Global Partners, announced on Wednesday that they are purchasing Corel's distribution and plan to release version 3.0 sometime after the first of the year.

Pointing out that the average Windows installation still "crashes 2.3 times a week," Xandros President Michael Bego says international demand for Linux machines continues to grow, often due to government decisions. Mexico recently elected to transition its schools to Linux, rather than continue to pay for Windows licenses nationwide. Similar official adoptions are cropping up in government agencies in Latin America and Asia.

All Work and No Play? Hardly

Finally, what would a desktop machine be without some cool games? Until now, the main force in Linux gaming has been Loki Software Inc., a company that ended up in bankruptcy after trying to make money by porting Windows games to Linux. But now there's a new entry in this arena, with a completely different strategy. TransGaming Technologies Inc. has been hard at work on a custom implementation of Wine that lets users run Windows games inside of Linux. Initially, TransGaming will enable Linux users to run Windows editions of Diablo II, Baldur's Gate II, American McGee's Alice, Sacrifice, The Sims, Half Life, and Roller Coaster Tycoon.

Members of TransGaming's forthcoming subscription service will get to vote on which games they'd like to see supported next, and the development team will concentrate its efforts on coding extensions to enable the games that receive the most votes. (A TransGaming subscription costs $5 a month.) We saw TransGaming's implementation of Wine run both American McGee's Alice and Diablo II on a 1-GHz machine sporting a modest NVidia GeForce2 MX-400-based graphics card; both games ran smoothly in the demo. (The full 1 GHz of CPU power is not necessary, says Gavriel State, TransGaming chief executive officer; the limiting factor in TransGaming's performance is the graphics card.) Once the Linux desktop disappeared and the game popped up on screen, there was no indication that the game wasn't running on its native platform.

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