Last week I wrote about GNU/Linux's continuing gains at the top end of the operating system market. In a sense, this is just an extension of its, by now, well-established position in the mainstream server area.
Historically, though, the desktop sector has been quite distinct, and GNU/Linux's showing here has been poor.
As a result, even when pundits have been willing to countenance the idea that GNU/Linux might become a major player in the server market, they have always dismissed its chances on the desktop. But now, for the first time, there are signs that things are beginning to move in this sector too.
One reason is that there has been a recognition in the open source world that it is not possible to ignore Microsoft and expect a wholesale conversion to the free software way of life. Instead, a more pragmatic attitude has developed whereby an initial co-existence with the dominant desktop player is offered - in the usually unspoken hope that people will see the light and later go the whole open source hog. The latest products offering GNU/Linux as a desktop solution also take great pains to make installation easy - in some instances, even easier than Windows.
A case in point is Xandros, which took over Corel's unsuccessful attempt to create a popular desktop GNU/Linux distribution. As well as offering a highly automated installation process, it also employs CodeWeavers Cross Over, which is based on the open source Wine project. Both Cross Over and Wine allow many Windows applications to be run directly under GNU/Linux. SuSE, a leading GNU/Linux company, has said that it too will be using this approach for its forthcoming desktop system.
Much of Wine's focus is to allow the key desktop program, Microsoft Office, to run under GNU/Linux. This was more relevant in the early days of the fledgling operating system when there were few native apps; today this is less of a problem. More specifically, since the appearance of Sun's Star Office and the parallel free OpenOffice, the GNU/Linux desktop now has a viable alternative.
This probably accounts for a notable shift in direction by the GNU/Linux company Lindows, set up by the founder of MP3.com, Michael Robertson. As its name suggests, Lindows.com originally planned to take the Xandros route of offering Windows compatibility through Wine. Microsoft took exception to its name, but failed to shut the company down.
Despite this, Lindows.com is now downplaying the Windows compatibility side, emphasising instead the low cost of its solutions. For example, it sells nearly complete computer systems through the US retail giant Walmart starting at just $199 (£126), excluding monitor. In the UK, they are available through Evesham.
But more interesting than these bundles is an aspect of the LindowsOS software that builds on Robertson's earlier experience at MP3.com, where he tried to bypass traditional music channels and distribute files directly over the Internet.
Users of LindowsOS can connect to a collection of GNU/Linux software, called the Click-N-Run-Warehouse, and install software directly from there to a PC with a single click of the mouse. This subscription-based service is an approach that even Microsoft might envy for its simplicity and potential to generate long-term revenue. More importantly, it overcomes one of the main barriers to adopting GNU/Linux on the desktop: the difficulty of finding and, above all, installing good applications.
This was first published in November 2002