The Year in Desktop Linux

Running Linux as your desktop operating system has come a long way from the days when you practically needed an IT degree. But where does the free, or nearly free, software stand with small business today?
Posted December 15, 2007

Aaron Weiss

Aaron Weiss

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Linux, an alternative open source operating system, is nothing new to small business. As a server platform, Linux is widely used to share files and run Web servers, not to mention routing e-mail and serving up the shared calendar and task capabilities that compete with Microsoft Exchange.

Yet, the adoption of Linux as a desktop operating system has been an uphill battle. With Windows enjoying a nearly 90 percent market share on the desktop by some estimates (and Mac hovering near five percent), desktop Linux has stiff competition.

The Ubuntu Linux Desktop
The Ubuntu Linux Desktop
(Click for larger image)

While desktop Linux has increasingly come to resemble Windows in look and feel, thus making it easier for people to switch teams, as it were, it has faced two significant stumbling blocks: limited applications and limited hardware support.

Fortunes may be changing for desktop Linux thanks to several shifts in the balance of the desktop computing ecosystem that have continued throughout 2007. In particular, desktop Linux operating systems have matured, more PCs come with Linux pre-installed, and negative or uncertain perceptions surrounding the release of Windows Vista have motivated interest in potential alternatives.

The Desktop Matures
Talking about Linux can be confusing because the word itself can mean different things to different people.  It may be best to think of Linux itself like the engine to a vehicle. Wrapped around that engine may be any number of chassis with widely varying amenities. Although dozens of such "distributions" have evolved over the years largely driven by enthusiasts, today's leading desktop Linux products are produced by a handful of commercial vendors. These vendors may or may not charge for the software itself, and they typically offer a wide range of fee-based support services and additional non-free software components, often tuned to corporate or enterprise needs.

For the small business looking at modern Linux desktops, the two clear market leaders are Ubuntu Linux and Novell SUSE Desktop Linux. Both have continued to mature and differentiate themselves in 2007.

Ubuntu, Linux for Humans
Although hard figures are difficult to come by, Ubuntu Linux is widely considered to be the most popular desktop Linux. Named for an African word denoting "humanity," Ubuntu's mission has been to wrap a warm, fuzzy and accessible chassis around Linux, which has often struggled against the perception that it was suited only to computer experts.

In 2007 alone Ubuntu released two successive versions of its desktop Linux, 7.04 a.k.a, "Feisty Fawn" and 7.10 a.k.a., "Gutsy Gibbon." Although Ubuntu's penchant for tagging its releases with goofy animal names might lend the product an air of frivolity, in fact Ubuntu is so popular for a reason: it is the easiest distribution for people to setup and use out-of-the-box (or "off-the-CD" in this case). Although not designed to precisely emulate Windows, per se, Ubuntu's visual interface is familiar enough that newcomers can get up to speed and be productive quickly.

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Both releases have introduced landmark features that have helped transform Linux from an enthusiast's operating system to a viable OS suitable for general-purpose use.

Feisty, for example, brought about point-and-click installation for so-called "restricted" media formats and device drivers. Traditionally, many Linux operating systems have not included proprietary software components. Unfortunately, this has meant people couldn't enjoy expected features like playing MP3 or DVD content and accelerated video drivers to popular graphics cards by ATI and NVidia. By bridging this gap, Feisty helps meet customer expectations, although it has rankled the feathers of some Linux purists.

With Gutsy, Ubuntu closed the gap further between desktop Linux and proprietary operating systems like Windows and Mac OS X with the introduction of 3D desktop support (akin to Vista's Aero), integrated system search (like the Mac's Spotlight), and application-level security called AppArmor.

For many small businesses, interoperability with Windows systems is important. Ubuntu can run Web and file servers, and it share files with Windows machines. However, these features are not configured out-of-the-box. You have to do it yourself.

Continued: A deep bench

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