Linux: The battle for desktop supremacy

Just when you thought the PC desktop war was over, bar the odd bit of Microsoft licence price gouging, hostilities could be about...

Just when you thought the PC desktop war was over, bar the odd bit of Microsoft licence price gouging, hostilities could be about to erupt again.

We know about Sun Microsystems StarOffice and the megaphone marketing of it against Microsoft Office, but we also know that getting a SuSE Linux desktop software package and having it run your scanner, your tape drive, your printer and any other peripheral whose operation you take for granted in Microsoft's plug-and-play USB world is pure fantasy, fit only for the most rabid Linux geek with a wardrobe full of anoraks.

This might be about to change. The Open Systems Development Lab (ODSL), the Linux community's development centre, has set up a 10-person desktop taskforce to define the way forward to an OSDL-blessed Linux-based desktop. Make no mistake. The whipped remnants of previous desktop wars want to strike back.

Linux suppliers are cock-a-hoop with confidence. Linux server revenues grew 62% in 2002 while overall server sales fell 8%, according to Gartner Dataquest. It thinks Linux may account 15% of server sales in 2007. OSDL members see Linux booming and the possibility of Microsoft's server O/S sales growth being slowed and then stopped.

Linux Torvalds has joined OSDL from Transmeta, and the list of OSDL members includes all significant server hardware companies and others chafing at the Microsoft licensing bit. Sun joined OSDL in August this year, and Sun's previous attempt to take on the Microsoft desktop, its thin client idea, was laughed out of court.

IBM is a member, the very same company that let Microsoft loose on the world PC stage in the first place and saw its OS/2 humiliatingly defeated. Novell joined this month.It is, of course, the company whose Netware O/S is in a pretty parlous state in the server OS market. It also failed comprehensively before when it took Microsoft on in full-frontal combat with Word Perfect and other Office component competitors. Now Novell is saying it has joined "a growing number of OSDL members interested in creating a working group initiative for Linux on the desktop".

These humiliated suppliers see a way to dislodge Microsoft from its desktop heartland.

OSDL has an end-user council of some 20 US companies and it has said to OSDL staff, "Behold, go forth and multiply the Linux desktop." These end-user companies did not want their names known by Microsoft, but they are serious. So the 10-person desktop task force was set up.

And there is some clout behind it. Novell can contribute both the SuSE desktop code and the Ximian desktop code it now owns. Sun can naturally contribute StarOffice. IBM will be sure to contribute something too. Its latent desire to get back at Microsoft for defeat after defeat will see to that.

How will such a desktop be represented to customers? Sun is pushing its StarOffice as the desktop to be used by people who don't need Microsoft's bells and whistles. But Red Hat has suggested that customers stay with Microsoft rather than go to an immature Linux.

So the main technology event, surely the main event, has to be creating the Linux equivalent of Microsoft's plug-and-play environment around USB, about making a Linux desktop a safe bet with easy integration of the tens of millions of existing printers and scanners and NICs and all the other desktop inheritance that plays so very well into Microsoft's hands.

If OSDL can combine Linux reliability, anti-virus resistance and cheapness with plug-and-play reliability then we might have a real battle on our hands and, much more importantly, a real choice for the business desktop.

Chris Mellor writes for

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