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Linux on the desktop--almost there again?

The buzz over breaking the Windows stronghold has died down considerably, but it hasn't been silenced.

SAN FRANCISCO--Despite their best attempts, Linux software companies say they are still having a hard time luring average consumers away from the Windows environment--but that may not necessarily be a bad thing.

Windows still dominates the PC world. About 90 percent of all desktops, laptops and even PDAs are powered by Microsoft, according to reports by Gartner and IDC. Even with all the hoopla last year about Linux progress, the buzz over breaking the Windows stronghold has died down considerably.

When it comes to the enterprise desktop, companies like Novell and Red Hat are making some progress, thanks to open-source projects such as Evolution, Firefox, KDE, GNOME, OpenOffice and Wine. But the companies still report adoption problems in the consumer space.

"(Linux on the desktop) is not the sexy story that it used to be. However, there are some very steady and irreversible trends."
--Jeremy White
Vice president, Novell

"We feel like it is a long road for us. It certainly has not a been an overnight shift," David Patrick, vice president and general manager of Novell's Linux, open-source and platforms services group, said during a press briefing at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo, which is taking place here this week.

Novell seems to have made more progress than other companies, with its Suse Linux Professional edition for home users and Novell Linux Desktop for the corporate office.

Patrick said the company has the best success in fixed markets, as with the company's retail win with Ritz Camera and its new education contract with the state of Indiana, both announced Tuesday.

The company also released its OpenSuse project, which Patrick says will differ from Red Hat's Fedora project in that it will let consumers help identify key open-source projects before they are professionally developed.

Red Hat continues to dismiss any idea that it will offer a consumer version of its Enterprise Desktop Linux product, according to a company representative.

Expert Jeremy White, who wears a double hat as the go-to man at the Desktop Linux Consortium and as the founder and CEO of CodeWeavers, says the biggest roadblock to average-consumer adoption seems to be lack of hardware support, especially for gadgets like MP3 players.

"Last year, there was a lot of smoke but no fire when it came to Linux on the desktop," he said. "It is not the sexy story that it used to be. However, there are some very steady and irreversible trends. There are a lot of customers that tell us that they would adopt Linux in theory, but say, 'Gee, we would use Linux if only if it could run this one application.'"

The other barrier, according to White, seems to be the lack of software support by key manufacturers like Adobe Systems and Macromedia, which are strong supporters of Windows and Apple Computer's Mac OS X but rely more on third-party companies to help their applications run on Linux.

White also suggests that crossover products like AJAX, ThinkFree, VMware and Wine are actually creating a world where Windows and Linux coexist in harmony on the desktop. Such tools allow people to run Windows programs on non-Windows systems.

In some cases, Linux is working to the advantage of corporate buyers who, according to White, are not shy about having employees working on Linux-based operating systems when the Microsoft account managers pay a visit.

"They use it like a leveraging tool, kind of like threatening Microsoft to give them better discounts or lose out on their licensing accounts," White said, but added, "it's still Microsoft's game."

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"In some ways," adds Brian Proffitt, editor of and co-author of "The Joy of Linux," "Linux on the desktop is almost irrelevant because of the shift towards Web-based applications.

"Linux in the enterprise is where you will see the most work being done these days because companies don't want all of those applications open at the bottom of a Windows tray. Ultimately, it comes down to what you want the Linux desktop to do."