Linux has a way to go

Talking about Linux is becoming a national pastime among us geeks. But even better than talking is writing about Linux -- because at least when you write about the OS, it becomes much more difficult to get wrapped up in an argument over pronunciation. By the time we can agree on how to say it, we might learn how to use it. But if Linux is going to invade the desktop, a few other things have got to happen as well.

Linux is the ultimate successor to the desktop throne, as any Linux fan would have you know. After a recent column you can bet I received quite a few e-mail messages from readers saying that they weren't concerned with Windows NT, they are more interested in Linux. Many readers cited the stability and scalability of Linux as major attractions.

There were also a few letters from others citing NetWare and even AS/400 as alternatives to Windows NT. However, it seems appropriate for me to reiterate that my column was about the desktop. And although I do not see NetWare and OS/400 moving to the desktop anytime soon, I do think that Linux has opportunities there.

Many of us at the InfoWorld Test Center agree that Linux is a strong platform. We gave a Product of the Year award to the Red Hat Linux distribution in each of the last two years. I also have a couple of Linux boxes running in the Test Center, but I have chiefly used the OS as a server platform.

I haven't yet found the OS as useful on the desktop, but I do see progress. For example, the latest release of Red Hat Linux (Version 5.1) continues to get easier to install and configure. But it has to get even easier if more people are going to use it. Linux has to get easier especially in adding a modem and connecting to your ISP if more folks are going to adopt the OS at home and on the road.

To help jump-start widespread adoption of Linux, the Canadian Linux Users' Exchange (CLUE) is hosting a nationwide "InstallFest" in which CLUE members will be on hand, in various Canadian cities, to help users install and configure Linux. This shows that Linux is growing in popularity, but it is also an admission that the OS needs improvement. (You can get more information on CLUE at http://global.proximity.on.ca/clue.)Linux is also gaining in its support for hardware. I now see fewer problems from the lack of third-party driver support, for example, but my troubles are not yet gone. Hardware support needs to continue to grow to the point where even Compaq computers can run Linux without finicky behaviour.

Most important though, we are starting to see a handful of new desktop applications emerge from reputable vendors, such as Corel's WordPerfect for Linux. But we have to see more. If Linux is going to get to the corporate desktop it will be the applications that take it there.

There is already widespread agreement that Linux is a strong operating system, because it is very stable and reliable. But most people don't care who builds the better OS mousetrap. They want to know who makes the best application cheese. Because, after all, it's the cheese that gets the mouse to the trap.

Microsoft certainly understands this. How else could it continue to dominate the OS market with so many disgruntled users? Because even greater than the company's OS monopoly is its monopoly on applications that are written specifically for Windows. That is what keeps people coming back.

Linux has come a long way and there is a community of people to thank for that. Maybe if we can agree on how to pronounce Linux, we can get more developers to write first-class applications.

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