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Hot skills: Windows dominates, but desktop Linux may be skill of the future

Nick Langley

What is it?

Linux is an open source operating system widely used on servers. It has also been touted as an alternative to Windows on the desktop but is far behind the Microsoft product in terms of number of users.

Champions of Linux on the desktop claim that the KDE and Gnome Linux desktops have reached a level of maturity where they offer "an acceptable end-user experience".

This may not be particularly inspiring, but as the Open Source Applications Foundation pointed out, Bill Gates built his empire on software that was "good enough" for most people.

"Linux is now good enough for large numbers of people. A key remaining task is to convince buyers to consider a Linux desktop on its merits," the Open Source Applications Foundation said.

However, analyst firm Gartner believes that Linux adoption for general desktop use will continue to be hampered by high migration costs, inability to run legacy Win32 applications and ongoing compatibility issues.

Where did it originate?

The KDE and the Gnome desktop emerged in 1998-1999. Analyst firm IDC said Linux desktops outstripped Macintosh shipments in 2002, and predicted that by 2006 Linux would probably have a larger installed base than the Macintosh OS.

Is it flexible?

Users can try out cross-platform applications such as the Mozilla/ Netscape browser suite and Openoffice/Staroffice suite on Windows before they commit themselves.

What makes it special?

The purchase cost of Linux desktop software is a fraction of what Microsoft charges for an equivalent product. Red Hat has proposed an annual subscription of less than £2,000 for 50 PCs, although some say the service and migration costs cancel out the savings.

The Linux kernel has been designed so that administrators can maintain the system without taking the whole thing down and rebooting it.

Although the range of applications so far is limited, you get a choice. If you do not like Sun's tweaks to Staroffice, you can get essentially the same productivity suite from another Openoffice supplier.

How difficult is it to migrate?

Publisher O'Reilly recently held a competition for the best tips to help migration to the Linux desktop. The winners included installing applications such as Openoffice and Mozilla on Windows for a transition period, setting up Linux workstations to resemble Windows desktops and using Gnome or KDE.

Where is it used?

Desktop Linux has been slower to catch on in the US and UK than in countries less committed to Microsoft such as Germany and Spain. The United Nations is promoting it as a way of bridging the global "digital divide".

IDC, more bullish than Gartner, has predicted that Linux will have 6% of the paid-for desktop market by 2007. However, getting accurate figures for Linux take-up is difficult because there is no way of tracking how many people have downloaded it or how many times they have copied it.

What systems does it run on?

Sun's Java Desktop System and Novell's Linux Desktop (based on SuSE and Ximian iterations) are the leading mainstream products.

Cross-platform products enabling applications to be developed and/or run on both Linux and Windows include Qt, the Wine Libraries and Borland's Kylix.

Not many people know that...

Dreamworks' animated film Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas was created entirely on Linux workstations and rendering machines. Industrial Light and Magic and Disney also use Linux.

What is coming up?

Better compatibility between Linux desktop and Microsoft file formats.

Rates of pay

Junior Linux administrators are paid between £23,000 and £27,000, and senior administrators can look for between £35,000 and £39,000.

Training

Go to KDE and Gnome to download the graphical desktop environment for Linux, and check out Debian for free tutorials.

For more on training from KDE click here >>

For more on training from Gnome click here >>

For more on training from Debian click here >>

Related Topics: IT strategy, VIEW ALL TOPICS

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