What is it?
Since 2004, excited industry commentators have been predicting a breakthrough year for the desktop version of the open source Linux operating system. However, 2007 starts with a note of sober realism.
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Hoped-for leadership from Google, reported to be developing its own desktop Linux distribution, has so far proved to be unfounded. Novell, the commercial desktop Linux leader with SuSE Enterprise Linux for the Desktop, was deemed by Linux purists to have wobbled when it made a deal with Microsoft to support customers who wanted Linux servers and Windows desktops.
On the plus side, gaps in the range of key applications have started to be filled. The Portland Project was set up to knock heads together and coordinate the different desktop initiatives.
Desktop Linux is likely to remain a niche skill for a while yet, although the 2006 Desktop Linux Summit included case studies of Windows-to-Linux migrations involving thousands of users, suggesting that the ability to deploy, administer and support Linux may become a sought-after addition to Windows skills.
Where did it originate?
The KDE and Gnome projects to create a free open source desktop operating system emerged in 1998. The Portland Project began in 2005 with the mission to improve interoperability for software suppliers, whose applications "must work regardless of Linux distributor, desktop environment or version". It is hoped the prospect of an unfragmented market for Linux applications will tempt more suppliers to create applications for the platform.
What's it for?
Desktop Linux will appeal most to organisations already committed to the Lamp (Linux, Apache, MySQL/PostgreSQL, Perl/Python/PHP) open source development stack.
In addition to established open source applications such as Openoffice and Firefox 2, "essential" applications such as Flash and Realplayer are becoming available.
In October 2006, Portland 1.0, the first set of common interfaces for Gnome and KDE desktop environments, was announced with support from major Linux distributions including Debian, Fedora and OpenSuSE. The programming interfaces provide developers with an easy method for executing the most common installation and integration tasks.
What makes it special?
Since 2003, some analysts have been reporting that desktop Linux is competitive with Windows in terms of ease of use. Some Linux champions also predict that the challenges involved in adopting Windows Vista will throw the field open for Linux, much as the changes after Visual Basic 6 undermined developer loyalty to Microsoft. Windows emulators such as Wine allow some familiar applications to be used.
How difficult is it to master?
Novell offers a three-day SuSE Linux fundamentals course for those making the transition from administering other operating systems. However, it is a long and potentially costly road to certified Linux practitioner status.
Where is it used?
Most large desktop Linux installations are in the public sector, particularly in education. Take-up is stronger in parts of the world that are coming relatively fresh to IT.
What's coming up?
In its 10 predictions for 2007, analyst firm IDC said, "Microsoft's client operating system anti-piracy campaign will drive customers towards Linux."
The main choice for those looking to work with desktop Linux is between paid-for classroom training - from the likes of Novell, IBM and Red Hat, and independents such as GB Direct - and the DIY approach using a combination of tutorials from Linux community sites and books.
Much of the free online material is incomplete, out of date or downright unfriendly, but a more systematic approach is promised.
Further education colleges are also starting to offer Linux training.
Rates of pay
Junior systems administrators working with desktop Linux earn between £26,000 and £30,000 depending on location.
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