Group to push Linux for desktop computing

The widespread use of Linux on the desktop hasn't caught on so far. But don't count it out quite yet: A new group, the Linux Desktop Consortium, is being formed by a growing number of Linux and application vendors to promote the use of the open-source operating system on corporate and home desktops.

Others have tried the concept before, including Dell Computer Corp., which several years ago offered several desktop computer models with Red Hat Linux preinstalled. It didn't catch on, though, and Dell dropped the preconfigured machines because demand was lacking.

But a lot has changed in recent years, including the addition of more robust, enterprise-ready features in the latest versions of the operating system, as well as a wider range of business applications. More expensive licensing for Microsoft Corp.'s dominant Windows operating system and applications has also caused many companies to at least look at alternatives, adding an opportunity for Linux vendors to gain sales.

The group says its organizing members include Linux vendors SuSE AG, MandrakeSoft Inc. and Lycoris Inc., as well as a host of Linux application companies including Codeweavers Inc., Ximian Inc. and NeTraverse Inc. Also included are open-source organizations such as Debian.org, Samba.org and OpenOffice.org.

The consortium is still in the planning stages, but a "formation committee'' has been created to get the organization on its feet. A statement on the fledgling group's Web site said it will strive to be a "well-balanced, vendor neutral organization" that advocates Linux on the corporate desktop.

Jeremy White, interim chairman of the consortium and the CEO of Codeweavers, said the idea gained support late last year after casual talks among members of the open-source community. A 90-day timeline is now in place, with the goal of bringing in OEMs and major technology companies to give it a broad reach, he said. A charter is being assembled, as well as membership dues levels, benefits and other details.

"The hope is that by mid- to late summer we can put together some sort of vendor-neutral trade show" to get things off the ground, White said. The group will work to bring people who are using Linux on the desktop together with users considering it.

Linus Torvalds, who created Linux in 1991, called desktop Linux "inevitable."

"We already have all of the tools, in open-source software, necessary for 80% of office workers in the world: an office suite including spreadsheet, word processor, and presentation program; a Web browser, graphical desktop with file manager, and tools for communications, scheduling, and personal information management," Torvalds said in a statement.

Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst at IDC, said the group will have formidable challenges. But he applauds their efforts.

The main stumbling blocks for Linux on the corporate desktop continue to be the difficulty of buying preconfigured computers running Linux from the factory and the absence of some applications. And while open-source alternatives are available to Microsoft's dominant Office suite, some compatibility issues and missing features remain, he said.

"If you want to use the most popular office suite, Microsoft would have to be persuaded to port Office to Linux" or to support its use with third-party enabling software, such as Wine, Kusnetzky said. "You can make it work, but if something goes wrong, the only one who can help you is Microsoft and Microsoft won't help you. You're running an unsupported use."

But by banding together as a consortium, the group at least has a chance of making a dent, he said. The collection of companies could together work to resolve remaining issues of program availability and even the dearth of preinstalled Linux machines -- eventually helping to increase the market share of Linux on the corporate desktop, he said.

"A group getting together to face those problems is a good thing," Kusnetzky said.

Bill Claybrook, an analyst at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston, said the creation of the consortium, "should have been done a while ago. It's a step in the right direction. If it gets started slowly, it will probably lose momentum. But if it's fast-moving, it could do something."

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Todd R. Weiss

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