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Linux backers foresee desktop gains

The upstart operating system may be entrenched in the data center, but even Linux backers say it needs some sprucing up before it can grab a significant spot on the desktop PC.

SAN DIEGO--Linux may be entrenched in the data center, but it will need some sprucing up before the upstart operating system grabs a significant spot on the desktop PC.

Cosmetic adjustments, better business applications--and more of them--and improved marketing will help turn the tide, according to speakers at the Desktop Linux Summit here.

While figures vary widely on worldwide Linux desktop penetration, most credible sources place it between 0.5 percent and 2 percent of the market, making the open-source operating system a slowly rising third to Windows and Apple Computer's Mac OS.

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Still, many are optimistic Linux will reach mainstream status, typically defined as 10 percent market share or better, within the next five years.

To get there, analysts say, developers and businesspeople behind Linux will need to make some changes. The user interfaces used by most Linux distributions are a good place to start, independent analyst Amy Wohl said. Some relatively simple cosmetic changes to make Linux look prettier and more similar to dominant Windows conventions would make a big difference, she said.

"It's an issue of how you package things up and present them," she said. "These are issues that are highly fixable. Let's get them fixed."

Open-source marketers also need to change their focus in some areas, Wohl said. Instead of trying to convert Microsoft customers, think about the much bigger potential markets of people who can't afford Microsoft applications, she said, citing the software giant's Office productivity package as an example.

"The fact of the matter is, there are approximately nine workers available as a target market for every one worker using Microsoft Office," she said. "There's a huge market out there without even touching the Microsoft issue."

Linux could also learn a few tricks from Apple, panelists said, such as harvesting the education market. "Another historically successful way to build a market is to give your stuff away to schools," said John Muster, author of numerous Unix and Linux books. "Kids get used to using it there, and they keep with it."

Muster also noted Apple's success in establishing itself as the preferred creator of platforms for multimedia content. A similar niche for Linux, in which open-source products were seen as more advanced and useful than the proprietary alternatives, would do a world of good, he said. "What that ultimately would be for Linux, I'm not sure, but we ought to be working (toward) it," Muster said.

Businesspeople also need to ditch the aura of ethical superiority that often surrounds discussions of open-source software, said Louis Nauges of Microcost, a French IT services and hardware company. Nauges said he has convinced numerous companies to make large-scale desktop migrations based solely on practical considerations such as cost and improved manageability.

"Large enterprises don't care about crusades," he said. "They want people to work more efficiently."

Linux also needs a greater variety of applications. While Linux is covered for important categories such as productivity software, many niche areas remain untouched, giving buyers another reason to stay with Windows, Wohl said.

"When we can really build out the ecosystem, then it will be time to get Linux fully alive for mainstream markets," Wohl said.

And don't count on major software makers to deliver those applications, at least not as long as Linux runs a distant third in desktop market share. Instead of waiting for companies such as Adobe Systems and Intuit to produce Linux versions of popular PC applications, Linux backers need to focus on improving the open-source alternatives to those applications, said Daniel Glazman, CEO of open-source developer Disruptive Innovations.

"If you really want innovation, you have to have new actors," Glazman said, citing GIMP, an evolving open-source alternative to Adobe's dominant Photoshop graphics application. "GIMP is a good example," Glazman said. "It's very competitive with Photoshop in terms of features, but the (user interface) is terribly intimidating." Spruce up GIMP so that it's as usable as Photoshop, Glazman said, and you'll have an application that can help build Linux market share on the desktop.

Among the stickiest of those specialty areas is gaming. While games regularly dominate rankings for the best-selling Windows-based software, they've barely made a dent on Linux.

Soaring production costs for top-tier games make it futile to try to convince big game developers to produce Linux titles, said Jay Moore, evangelist for GarageGames, which publishes games and game-creation tools.

Real momentum will have to come from independent developers, who can produce reasonably sophisticated games on slim budgets if given the right tools, Moore said.

While open-source partisans have a reputation as cheapskates when it comes to actually paying for software, Moore said his company has found Linux users increasingly willing to pony up for well-made games. "Having a business model is no longer a religious faux pas in the Linux market," he said.

Game developers are also learning to see past conventional wisdom that Linux titles are difficult to support, given the spotty record for Linux drivers among some major PC hardware manufacturers.

"We've been pleasantly surprised to find that our support costs are lower for Linux than any other platform we produce for," Moore said. "The Linux users tend to fix things themselves, which helps, and the hardware support has gotten a lot better."

Some factors standing in the way of desktop Linux may be beyond the control open-source developers, however. In countries where software piracy is common, it can be hard to get people to accept open-source products when slicker proprietary applications are essentially free and offer the added thrill of defying the law, Nauges said.

"That's a key issue for the Spanish people--they like to do unlicensed copying of software," he said. "If you just give it away, where's the pleasure in that?"