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Hot skills: Low costs appeal but lack of apps holds back desktop Linux take-up

Nick Langley

Demand for open source deskop systems is rising slowly.

What is it?

Desktop Linux is simply the Linux operating system with a desktop graphical user interface. Linux can be scaled from the desktop to the largest enterprise system, and it has done well in the datacentre, compared with Microsoft's Windows.

As the free, downloadable Openoffice improves the ability of Linux desktops to cope with Microsoft Office documents, users fed up with high costs, version incompatibilities and forced upgrades may be ready for an alternative to Windows.

Where did it originate?

With two projects, KDE and Gnome, in the late 1990s.

What's it for?

It will appeal most to organisations already committed to the Lamp (Linux, Apache, MySQL/PostgresQL/Perl/ PythonPHP) open source platform. Most routine desktop applications are covered, with some products familiar from other environments, such as Adobe's Acrobat reader and the Firefox browser.

What makes it special?

In the US you can already buy a £170 computer running the Linspire version of desktop Linux - but only if you can find someone prepared to sell it to you. Margins on low-cost software are obviously low, and Linux champions have accused analysts of deliberately putting people off desktop Linux in the enterprise because of the threat to their revenues.

Although not virus-free, Linux claims a stronger security model than Windows, and it is certainly much less of a target.

How difficult is it to master?

There are "conceptual" differences between Windows and desktop Linux, reflected in a different style of user interface. Culture shock can be reduced, or made more gradual, by installing Openoffice on Windows first.

Where is it used?

Accurate figures for Linux usage are notoriously hard to compile as there is no way of tracking how many people have downloaded it, and how often they have copied it. Analyst firm IDC, more positive about desktop Linux than Gartner, gives it 2.5% of the desktop operating system market by shipments, which excludes many downloads. IDC predicts this will rise to 9% by 2008.

What systems does it run on?

There are few major suppliers that ship PCs with Linux pre-installed, however, Dell can provide a system with Linux, as can a few smaller UK suppliers. Despite making progress, it seems Linux still has a way to go to break the Windows stranglehold on the market.

What's coming up?

Although Linux adoption is rising steadily, a survey by industry body the Open Source Development Lab found the shortage of applications the biggest obstacle to take-up. Philip Peake, co-ordinator of the OSDL's Desktop Linux Working Group, admits many of the missing "building blocks" are just too boring to attract open source developers.


Training

Formal training is available from Novell, Red Hat and other Linux distributors. There are many free online resources, including the UN Development Program, which hopes that low-cost Linux systems will bridge the worldÕs Òdigital divideÓ.

Rates of pay

Junior Linux systems administrators can look for £23,000 to £28,000, rising to £35,000 to £40,000 with experience.


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