Getting the Desktop Ready for Linux: A Historical Analysis

by Glenn Stone

One of my non-Linux-savvy friends asked me the question, what's significant about Linux for her? The fact that she would ask this question, combined with a note from Phil Hughes, got me to thinking--is Linux finally ready for the desktop?

In 1998, I bought my wife a computer. It was a surplus Dell 486/66, into which I stuffed 32MB of RAM and an ET4000 video card (the VGA module had fried, but otherwise the computer was good). Add an NE-2000-clone NIC, and it was ready for the home LAN.

She insisted on Windows, because she was a secretary at the time and wanted to keep up her chops at home. I grudgingly dropped Windows 95 on the box. This lasted about three months, until the registry ate itself twice in as many weeks. At this point my wife exhibited her penchant for resembling a Sea-Bee in the audio spectrum and told me to install Linux. Grinning to myself, I grabbed a Red Hat 5 CD and set to work. Netscape and Solitaire were installed, and the audio feed from her end of the table quickly subsided from NC-17 to PG. She's never looked back, and I thought to myself, surely Linux is ready for the desktop.

But she couldn't run Word or any of her old Windows (or DOS) games, and many others complained about this or that lacking function, including myself--I missed Quicken. In 1999, I went to work for American Megatrends. Despite being hired on as a Linux engineer, I was issued a standard Windows 95 machine. I promptly split the partition, installed Red Hat 6, downloaded SourceOffSite, persuaded the local network admin to turn on Exchange's IMAP and LDAP interfaces and integrated myself seamlessly into an NT shop. Surely Linux was ready for the desktop now , at least in a corporate world.

But Applix and AbiWord wouldn't read all the crazy Word documents I received, so I grudgingly ended up booting Windows about once a week. The year 2000 passed, and I chuckled to myself by running Emacs and Active State Perl on my Windows desktop at a Very Large Airplane Company, all the while telnetting into a network of some 400 HP UNIX machines. I nearly fell out of my chair when I opened the Control Panel on the Windows 2000 demo unit they gave me and saw the BSD beastie staring out at me.

2001 came, and I headed over to the Linux Journal offices to fill out some paperwork. When I go there, I discovered I had forgotten said paperwork but remembered it could be gotten online. The secretary pulled up a Netscape browser and pulled down the PDF file; when Acrobat Reader came up, she hit "print". Imagine my surprise when a Linux print dialog came up! Even this diehard penguinhead had made the assumption that secretary equaled Windows Box. But no, she was running KDE, and it had me totally fooled. Surely Linux was ready for the desktop if it had me fooled.

But we still were having minor problems with Word documents, and even though Quake and Civilization now ran on Linux, it still wasn't enough. GnuCash was finally usable, but it still didn't have the on-line download capabilities Quicken did. But, in late 2001 TransGaming came out with WineX; Mandrake bundled The Sims with it and shipped the first version of Linux specifically targeted at the gamer. Soon thereafter, Lycoris debuted its own Linux distribution specifically targeted at the Windows user, Desktop LX, and then wangled a deal with to ship PCs preloaded with it. Of course, Dell had been shipping Linux on "certain selected models" for a while, but they were never too forthcoming about the fact.

Then, in mid-2002, Red Hat 8 came out. It was loaded with Bluecurve, a unified desktop with a Windows-esque control panel, and new GUI configuration tools. More importantly, CodeWeavers released Crossover Office. With it, we could run Word natively on our Linux machines and forever banish the document incompatibility problem. We also could run Ximian's Connector and talk to Exchange--we finally could give the digitus impudicus to anyone who told us we had to run Windows. We could even run QuickTime! Surely, Linux now was ready for the desktop.

This past weekend I finally got around to setting up Wine on my wife's Debian machine. She now can play some of her old Windows games, and we're even ordering a few new ones (Everett Kaser Software is the first Windows gaming site I've seen that advertises its games can be run on emulation. I can't get Honeycomb Hotel to work yet, but Sherlock runs just fine, but I digress). Also during the course of the weekend, we hear that now is shipping machines with SuSE 8.2 installed, starting at $300. In the course of looking up Ximian Connector, I discover that Ximian has come out with Ximian Desktop 2, an "Enterprise Linux Desktop." CodeWeavers shipped Crossover Office 2.0.0 back in April. Commercial Linuxes are shipping for the AMD-64 (Opteron/Hammer) platform; the release date for 64-bit Windows hasn't even been announced yet. Surely, Linux is ready for the desktop now. Right?

No. You still can't walk into Big Box Computers and walk out with a machine pre-loaded with Linux. When that will happen is anyone's guess. But as far as I can tell, it's not an issue of Linux not being ready for the desktop--it's a question of whether the desktop is ready for Linux.

Let me explain. Wal-Mart can cut a deal to get a few hundred PCs with SuSE on them, store them in a warehouse somewhere and ship them onesie-twosie to the oddball cust, err, enlightened individuals who want them. They're not going to ship ten PCs to every Wal-Mart in the country, sacrifice the shelf space, endure the customer confusion when somebody picks one up and takes it home expecting the latest offering from Microsoft to be pre-loaded--you see where I'm going. The big box computer-only stores could afford to devote that kind of space, time and effort, but to really do it justice, they'd need to find Linux-savvy salescritters--who are rather like the Golden Wrapper inside a Willy Wonka Chocolate Bar. They do exist, and I've had the pleasure of working with one or two, but they're awfully hard to find. Again, this would be a nationwide roll-out of a Big Project with no guaranteed return. This makes accountants of publicly traded companies nervous.

On the other hand, if we look at the technology life cycle, Linux is close to being ready for commodity desktops. In 1993, it was an experiment; only mad scientists used it and kids like Nathan Laredo, who brought in the first Linux PC I ever saw and set it up on the second desk in my office at Georgia Tech. Being his sysadmin and boss, I issued him an IP address and never really thought much about it or him. Shows what I knew. Nathan ended up writing a number of multimedia drivers for Linux; I've written a grand total of one. But back to Linux, it skipped the military phase and went straight for industry. Titanic was CGIed on Red Hat 4.2.

Since then, the Beowulf Cluster was invented. Now with TransGaming's WineX, and such games as Diablo II and Neverwinter Nights being released natively for Linux (not to mention the ever-popular Tux Racer, written specifically for Linux), the penguin has entered the arena. The next and final phase of the life cycle is commodity. The PC has long since been here, and the cell phone recently entered that phase. Linux, I believe, is next. As we used to say at that Very Large Airplane Company, stand by to be amazed.

Glenn Stone is a Red Hat Certified Engineer, sysadmin, technical writer, cover model and general Linux flunkie. He has been hand-building computers for fun and profit since 1999, and he is a happy denizen of the Pacific Northwest.


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