Does Linux have a future on the desktop?

The hype about Linux's potential as a desktop operating system started years ago. But just as easy-to-use interfaces are being crafted for the operating system, which has had a stronghold in the server arena for a number of years, troubles faced by some Linux companies lead observers to question whether it will ever truly compete with Windows for desktop dollars.

Loki Software Inc., a company that ports video games to Linux, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection two weeks ago. Eazel Inc., a company that had planned to create a new interface for Linux and had generated a good amount of buzz due to the inclusion of a number of the original designers of the MacOS on its team, dissolved in May. In the face of user apathy, Dell Computer Corp. quietly decided to stop offering Linux as an operating system choice on its build-to-order systems. Developments like this have raised questions about the viability and future of Linux on the desktop.

Loki, which has ported such hit PC games to Linux as Quake III Arena, Railroad Tycoon 2, Deus Ex and Heavy Metal: F.A. K.K.2, filed for bankruptcy protection after taking on more debt than the three-year-old company could manage, said Scott Draeker, president of Loki. The Chapter 11 filing will allow the company to restructure its debt and continue with operations, Draeker said.

The PC game market, on any operating system, is a tough business, he said, comparing it to Hollywood.

As in Hollywood, "most of the products don't really do very well. Most of the business is driven by a few hits, a few blockbusters." And, also like Hollywood, the bigger game companies have enough money to write poor-selling games off and wait for hits, but smaller companies can't do the same, he added.

"A lot of development houses are started up all the time and a lot close down all the time," he said.

Draeker expects that Loki will have continued success, however, because the company has "a relatively small, but extremely loyal following" which has already caused a spike in sales and offered to set up funds to help the company out.

Loki's Chapter 11 filing is, in some ways, more than just the story of a struggling company, however. The company, after all, sells games -- one of the major categories of consumer desktop software. If a company that sells a consumer product for Linux can't find a large enough audience to thrive, what then is the future of the Linux as a generally used desktop OS?

Draeker thinks that future is solid, but is still far off.

One major challenge that Linux will face in the near term is that of retail penetration, he said. As long as Windows software continues to constitute the vast majority of what's available in stores, Linux will remain at a disadvantage, he said. However, as the operating system itself improves, so too will its commercial success, he said.

"It's too early for somebody to predict how it's going to come down," he said, noting that Linux is not yet as mature an operating system as Windows or MacOS.

"Don't judge us until it's done and ready," Draeker said.

"The Linux desktop (market) is something we've very much looking forward to," he said.

Despite Draeker's vision, Linux's future may not reside on the desktop at all, according to Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of system software research at market research company International Data Corp., based in Framingham, Massachusetts.

"Linux is very unlikely to become a standard consumer item on a PC," he said. Though "Linux fits very well in the specialist environment," Kusnetzky expects that Linux will never win the fight against Microsoft Corp. as a mainstream consumer operating system.

"It's fairly clear that Microsoft is going to do its best to prevent any success of Linux on the desktop," he said. Microsoft is not offering its applications on Linux and is waging a war of words against the operating system in an attempt to squash any potential success, he said. Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer went so far as to call Linux a "cancer" in June.

Linux also faces the obstacle of user awareness and access to the OS, he said.

"What drives people to the selection of a desktop operating system is not the operating system," but rather users choose the application they need to do their work and then find an operating system that the program runs on, he said.

Though "almost every major (Windows) application has an analog that runs on Linux," consumers either don't know about them or don't seek them out, he said. As a result, offerings like Dell's fail, he said.

Other analysts agree. "Some really interesting stuff is happening with Linux, (but) almost none of it is on the desktop," said Charles King, senior analyst at the Sageza Group Inc. (formerly Zona Research Inc.). Rather, King feels the Linux's future lies in servers and other markets.

As the operating system is more complex than what the average computer user wants, Linux on the desktop "doesn't seem to be going anywhere -- at least not in the United States," King said, noting that Linux has found more success on desktops in Europe and Asia.

Because of this uphill battle for awareness and ease of use, Linux companies and developers are looking to other markets, Kusnetzky said.

While vendors are happy to make desktop sales, "they're kind of skipping over the attack on the desktop," he said. "My sense is that the Linux community is focused heavily on Web applications and Web services."

Linux will likely be the operating system that powers the computers that a new breed of smart cell phones, handhelds and appliances receive information, applications and other services from over the Internet, he said. This transition to Internet-oriented computing has started on desktop PCs that access material through Web browsers, but eventually desktop systems may be replaced by smart, small devices, he said.

"Those devices are the target of the Linux community, not the desktop PC," he said. Though Linux will run the servers these devices contact, the devices themselves could also run Linux, he said.

Rather than trying to beat Microsoft at its own game, "they've taken on a different task, one that they have a pretty strong chance of winning, most of the time," Kusnetzky said.

Sageza's King also sees a potentially strong future for Linux in markets it has yet to tap into, such as manufacturing and the entertainment industry. One major Linux backer, IBM Corp., has heavily touted Linux's potential for animation, video and other entertainment industry applications, announcing its Linux Digital Solution Studio offering last week. King also expects that Linux will see a lot of growth as a replacement for Unix systems and applications.

King agrees with Kusnetzky that devices and appliances will be another source of strength for Linux.

"Linux in the embedded space makes a lot of sense," he said.

Linux's "future depends on where (it) really delivers its true value," in areas that have yet to be determined, King said.

Regardless of where its future lies, however, Linux will continue to be present and important, he said.

"I don't see Linux going anywhere any time soon," King said.

One of the places it won't be going any time soon, it seems, is to consumers' desktops.

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