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Novell rejoins desktop fight, with Linux as ally

Company will release first Linux desktop package since acquiring SuSE Linux and Ximian. Will it unseat Microsoft Office?

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
Looking to tap into discontent with Microsoft, Novell is set to deliver this week a package of Linux-based software for the PC that includes Office-like productivity applications, along with e-mail and Web-browsing programs.

The company announced Monday that Novell Linux Desktop 9 will be available Friday. The release represents the combination of a number of desktop-related products that Novell gained through its "="">acquisition of SuSE Linux and Ximian in 2003.

Novell will charge $50 per person for an "entitlement" to use the software, a deal that includes one year of updates and bug fixes. The company will charge $18 per desktop per year for its ZenWorks desktop management software, which can manage both Linux and Windows PCs. Support services, which cover both Novell's open-source and proprietary software, are paid on top of the software acquisition cost.

The Linux Desktop 9 package includes the SuSE Linux operating system; Novell's version of the OpenOffice productivity suite; the Novell Evolution e-mail and calendaring software; and the Firefox Web browser. The package will give customers the choice of using the Gnome or KDE user interface software, and it will include the Mono development tools for building Linux applications.

Novell is marketing its Linux Desktop suite in a segmented fashion and not seeking to unseat the millions of Microsoft Office programs already installed, according to company executives. In a statement, Novell CEO Jack Messman called the company's Linux desktop strategy "pragmatic."

Nat Friedman, vice president of Linux desktop engineering at Novell and a co-founder of Ximian, said, "People want to tell a David and Goliath story, but we're telling a much more targeted story. In certain key markets, it's viable."

In this first Linux desktop product sold by Novell, the company is selling primarily to companies that have people who use Unix engineering workstations or employees who have a "fixed function" PC that performs a few tasks in a call center or on a shop floor.

Novell tested the program with about 60 customers, including state and local governments in the United States and Europe. Some national government and educational customers in developing countries have shown a willingness to adopt Linux on desktops more aggressively, Novell executives said.

Novell does expect that in two to five years its Linux desktop suite will be appropriate for a large class of office workers and consumers. More device drivers for Linux will become available, and Novell is trying to aid independent software vendors in creating more Linux applications, said Ted Haeger, director of marketing at Novell.

By the end of next year at the earliest, Novell expects to complete work on the next version of its desktop package, which could be called Novell Desktop 10, Friedman said.

The software is being designed to aid collaboration; allow people to access their information by logging on from any machine on a network; and improve the ability to find information through search and better organization of information, Friedman said.

A survey of corporate technology professionals by Forrester Research indicated that as of yet, corporate customers do not view Linux as a viable option as a mainstream desktop package, said analyst Simon Yates. Of companies surveyed, 51 percent said they won't replace any Windows-based PCs with Linux in the next five years, and 26 percent said they will replace less than a quarter of their machines with Linux in that time.

"Our research has shown that the primary motivators for firms to switch from Windows to Linux are lower total cost of ownership from purchase disposal, easier and cheaper OS licensing, and lower acquisition costs," Yates said.

However, corporations already have a lot invested in Windows applications and are concerned that a shift to Linux from Windows would not be worth the investment, he said.

"I believe that Longhorn will be the fork in the road for many firms," Yates said. "When Longhorn releases, firms will ask themselves whether or not to jump off the Microsoft train and consider Linux." Microsoft plans to release Longhorn, the next version of Windows, in 2006.

Some large corporate customers are looking at their options. AT&T's chief information officer has asked researchers to evaluate whether Linux will work as a potential replacement for some of the company's tens of thousands of PCs. IBM, too, has looked into a pilot project around Linux PCs.

Novell's move into desktop software rejoins a battle with Microsoft that Novell largely lost in the 1980s and 1990s when it sold a competitor to Office on Windows. Novell is also facing increasing competition among Linux desktop software providers, including Sun Microsystems and Red Hat, which also cater to the corporate market.

In terms of features, Linux desktop suites do not yet match Windows, but they are improving rapidly, said Stephen O'Grady, an analyst at research company RedMonk. O'Grady has been running a Linux desktop suite for a few months.

"It comes down to what you think the market for good enough is," O'Grady said. "For sizable constituencies within most organizations, it's at least good enough if not better than adequate."