Linux moves slowly onto the desktop

Several recent developments move Linux a few steps closer to the abilities of the average computer user, but the alternative operating system still isn't a Windows killer.

Stephen Shankland
Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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4 min read
Several recent developments have moved Linux a few steps closer to the abilities of the average computer user, but the alternative operating system still isn't a Windows killer.

The K Desktop Environment (KDE), one of the two primary graphical user interfaces for Linux, has been upgraded to version 2.0, and big names such as Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard and IBM have formed an industry consortium called the KDE League to promote the software.

The flagship of KDE 2.0 is Konqueror, a combination Web browser, file manager and document viewer, but the upgrade also includes a revised KOffice desktop software suite.

Meanwhile, a major rebuilding of the XFree86 graphics underpinning of Linux is complete, bringing better TrueType font support and speedier graphics for gamers. And Eazel, Helix Code and Red Hat all have released software and services that make it easier to find new Linux software and update what's running.

But while HancomLinux, Chilliware and InstallShield are bringing new desktop software to Linux, other companies just don't see money there yet.

ToddH Computer gaming company Id Software, creator of "Doom" and "Quake," has scrapped a retail version of its Linux rendering of "Quake III Arena," chief executive Todd Hollenshead said in a recent posting.

"It's a support nightmare due to the multiple flavors of popular versions (of Linux) and the ever-changing kernel; retailers don't want it; and the Linux Q3A sales were disappointing," he said.

Id will offer a downloadable version of "Quake III," Hollenshead said, and will continue to back Linux in the long term. "But we can only do so much without the support of the Linux community. And part of that must occur at the retail level," he said.

Red Hat, the top Linux software seller, still doesn't see Linux as a desktop operating system replacement. Instead, Red Hat tailors versions of Linux for heavy-duty computers called servers and small gadgets such as Cradle Technologies' all-purpose computing devices.

"The desktop space is extremely interesting, but for this particular company

Linux on your desk
Linux companies are beefing up their desktop software with improvements such as:  
• Red Hat, Helix Code and Eazel have all planned services that can automatically update Linux computers with the latest version of new software. 
• KDE 2.0 has been released, with improvements such as an enhanced KOffice software suite and the Konqueror combination Web browser-file manager-document viewer that supports Java, JavaScript, secure sockets layer, Netscape plug-ins and other Web browser features. 
• XFree86 has improved software underpinnings for graphics, including built-in support for TrueType fonts and the beginnings of a competitor to Microsoft's DirectX graphics technology. 
• Chilliware has released Linux software for desktop publishing and other tasks. 
• Installshield, maker of a popular program for installating Windows software, has developed a version that works with all sorts of computers, including Linux machines. 
• Korean software company HancomLinux has released another desktop office suite, HancomOffice, that will compete with suites from Applix, Sun Microsystems, KDE and Corel.
at this time, it's not going to be our primary focus," said Red Hat spokeswoman Melissa London.

Linux on the desktop is a complicated matter.

For one thing, there's nobody really in charge of the Linux desktop user interface. Linus Torvalds exercises some control over Linux's kernel--the core parts of the operating system--but leaves user interface issues to others.

Linux is also technologically complex. There are several layers of graphics-handling software above Linux's basic text interface. First is the X server, XFree86, which handles communications with the video card.

On top of that is the desktop environment, of which KDE and Gnome are the two most popular. While most programs work fine with either desktop environment, there are differences in the look and feel and in actions such as copying and pasting.

Another complication of the KDE and Gnome situation is that users often have to decide between two programs for basic tasks such as installing software updates or monitoring which programs are running. While Linux advocates often point to the advantages of this choice--for example, a person can pick the one that works better--newbies can be confused and companies such as Internet service providers must write two separate sets of instructions for how to use dial-up access.

A key feature of the desktop environment is the window manager. KDE uses its own, whereas Gnome can use a variety, such as Enlightenment, FVWM or Sawfish.

Just simplify
The complicated desktop environment situation is consolidating somewhat, however.

Several big-name manufacturers, such as Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Compaq, signed up to participate in the Gnome Foundation. The Gnome Foundation also won the support of Linux companies Red Hat, VA Linux Systems, Eazel, Helix Code, Henzai and Turbolinux.

Last month, IBM, Compaq, HP and Turbolinux also joined the KDE League, the corresponding promotional arm of the KDE effort. Other members include Trolltech and SuSE--two leading creators and proponents of the KDE software--as well as Caldera Systems, MandrakeSoft, Corel and Borland. The KDE League will promote KDE while trying to encourage its distribution and development.