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Plugging the Linux holes

Major application developers like Adobe and Intuit have yet to show much enthusiasm for Linux. Backers say if they wait too long, "good enough" open-source alternatives will emerge.

You can easily surf the Web and run a spreadsheet on a Linux-powered PC, but good luck if you want to balance your checkbook.

What's new:
Linux has more fans all the time, but a lack of familiar applications is slowing adoption.

Bottom line:
Major software makers say they're waiting for more Linux users before bothering to adapt their products to open-source--but Linux advocates say the window of opportunity is closing.

For more info:
Track the players

The open-source operating system has yet to attract significant attention from makers of major desktop applications, such as Adobe Systems, Macromedia or Intuit, maker of the popular Quicken personal finance program. This lack of notice is a sticking point even for Linux visionaries such as Bruce Perens.

"I admit it--I still have a Windows machine that I use solely to run Quicken and TurboTax once a year," Perens said.

Software makers, open-source backers and analysts disagree on whether desktop Linux can thrive without applications such as Quicken and Adobe's Photoshop. Some are confident home-grown Linux applications will evolve to meet such needs, while others say Linux

"I admit it--I still have a Windows machine that I use solely to run Quicken and TurboTax once a year."
--Not even Linux guru Bruce Perens can find all the open-source software he needs.
versions of familiar software tools are essential for converting people from Windows.

"If you're used to a product, you want to keep using that product if that's at all possible," said Miguel de Icaza, co-founder of the Ximian Linux desktop project. "In a few cases, I think open source has good equivalents to Windows applications, but people will still prefer what they know."

Seattle electronics consultant Jim Richardson, however, says support from big software developers hasn't affected his enthusiasm for Linux. "I neither miss, nor need, those apps, with the possible exception of Photoshop, and that is a window of opportunity that Adobe is going to lose very soon," he said.

Catch-22, Linux style
Linux applications are a "which came first, chicken or egg" situation for most major application sellers. There's not enough of a user base now to justify development of Linux products, but the absence of familiar applications slows growth of the Linux user base.

Software makers have responded with a variety of experimental moves to gauge interest in the growing Linux market without committing significant resources. Macromedia recently began selling a version of its Flash development tools optimized to work with the Windows-to-Linux emulator Wine. Corel earlier this month began selling a trial Linux version of its WordPerfect productivity software.

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Adobe offers a Linux version of its Adobe Reader software for displaying PDF files and tried out a Linux version of its FrameMaker layout software two years ago. But the company has since backed off on Linux projects, until "customers demand Linux applications and the market is there," according to an Adobe representative.

Don't worry about market share, reply Linux backers, because Linux already has enough applications to cover basic PC needs and ensure steady growth on the desktop. The productivity package, Mozilla Web browser and a few other mature, Linux-native applications cover the bases for most users, said Gary Edwards, a Redwood City, Calif., developer and contributor.

"The core is already in place with and," Edwards said. "The rest is gravy."

"Eighty percent of the employees are people we classify as the naive user--they can be satisfied with a very small suite of applications, which Linux has covered."
--Bruce Perens on where
Linux is succeeding

Linux supporters expect the desktop version of the operating system to follow a progression similar to Linux for servers. An initially thin roster of server products was bolstered by applications such as the MySQL database program and the Apache Web server, so that Linux penetration rivals or bests Windows' in several important server markets. Market gains for desktop Linux are expected to continue to trail server products, due to factors from user interfaces to application availability, but ultimately the pattern of development is likely to be the same.

The 80-20 rule comes into play with Linux desktop applications. "Eighty percent of the employees are people we classify as the naive user--they can be satisfied with a very small suite of applications, which Linux has covered," Perens said. "We've gotten to the stage where 80 percent of the people in your company can have a Linux desktop in front of them and not get out bent out of shape."

De Icaza said that with sturdy, Linux-native applications covering the basics, the rest of the application pictures consists of "niche markets" that will be addressed more completely as desktop Linux spreads.

Which leaves the question of who will dominate the market for those niche applications. Just about every significant Windows application has a Linux-native counterpart, but the alternatives vary widely in maturity and usability. GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program), an open-source graphics program similar to Photoshop, is widely considered to be close to the "good enough" status achieved by OpenOffice and Mozilla. GNUCash may have a way to go, however, before it challenges Intuit's Quicken empire.

The train is leaving
Michael Robertson, CEO of desktop Linux company Lindows, said application makers have less time than they might think to get in step with Linux.

"It's a waiting game for some of these companies, keeping an eye on the installed base, but they can't keep waiting much longer," Robertson said. "The big software vendors have a choice--respond to Linux or wait for pent-up demand to fill that hole, which is already happening. More and more of these Linux applications are approaching the good-enough threshold."

Perens agreed. "If you don't have a really good Linux version of your application, what you're doing is abdicating your market, because someone else is going to develop a compelling open-source application," he said. "And by the time you get there, it'll be too late."

Embracing Linux would also give software makers such as Adobe and Intuit, which have fended off major competitive efforts by Microsoft in the past, insurance if the software giant decides to go after their markets again, Edwards said.

"Adobe has a marketplace of users and potential users," he said. "Microsoft wants that market and will take it, given enough time...That's the threat of working on the Windows platform. The only hope any of these guys have of surviving a Microsoft assault is to work with open-source communities on creating a portable application environment, an ?open stack,? and write their applications to that environment instead of to Windows."

Good enough...isn't
While and other Linux applications have reached the "good-enough" stage, analysts caution that it's unlikely to be good enough to convince businesses to undergo the expense and labor of migrating to Linux.

"You need to demonstrate a real advantage to get companies to move over to a new desktop," said IDC analyst Al Gillen. "If you don't get a payoff from moving from one platform to another, what's the point?"

"Parity isn't good enough," added Ted Schadler, an analyst at Forrester Research. "It almost doesn't matter if there's a Linux application that's almost as good as a Windows application--it's still not likely to draw attention from the market...It's kind of like the early days of PCs, where you have to reinvent the value proposition from scratch."

Robertson argued that "good enough" is a different proposition, however, in some of the geographic areas in which Linux has the greatest potential. Emerging regional markets, such as Latin America and parts of Asia, are moving to Linux PCs without any Windows experience, so people don't have expectations for how an application should look and behave. "In emerging markets, there's no Photoshop bias because they've never been able to afford to use it," he said.

Safety net
In more developed markets, there are a variety of interim solutions for folks who want to make the jump to Linux but have an application or two they just can't leave behind. Programs such as the Wine emulator and Win4Lin provide an environment for running Windows applications on a Linux PC.

Perens said emulation offers a safety net for companies considering a Linux switch.

"I think the Windows emulation approach is only an interim approach, but it solves an immediate problem," he said. "One of the things people worry about is what happens if we do a desktop migration and then it turns out there's this application we need. That's what Wine is good for."

Desktop Linux also benefits from the ongoing trend to deliver software as a Web-based service, with equal access for any Web browser. Intuit has typified that approach with Web-based applications such as TurboTax and QuickBase, which benefit the company by switching irregular boxed software sales to steady subscription income while at the same time opening products to a wider base of potential customers.

"When you talk about Intuit, I think their intention is to do everything they can to promote using their applications over the Web, and that's great for Linux," Robertson said.

Bring in the fun
But some applications aren't so easy to replicate on Linux. Robertson has said games are one of the biggest holes on the Linux desktop, a situation he doesn't expect to improve as much as become irrelevant as living room consoles take over more of that market.

Chad Smith, a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Web content manager, disagreed, arguing that people still want to have fun with their PCs.

"Linux needs games," he said. "This may seem trivial, but I don't think it is. Most home users don't buy a computer just to do their homework, write memos and do their taxes. Linux already has plenty of apps out there to allow the playing of DVDs and MP3s. What's really missing is first-class games."