Linux at work

Supported apps don't abound, but with a few tricks you can get the best of both worlds

Although Linux has established itself on Web site servers, its fate as a desktop OS is a different story.

The open-source OS has been a nonstarter on government desktops, except at a few agencies looking to save money with alternatives such as Sun Microsystems Inc.'s StarOffice, and among engineers, scientists and academics who historically have favored Unix.

True believers will tell you that's starting to change, and they're right. Companies such as Ximian Inc. bundle the most popular Linux distributions, such as RedHat and SuSE, with graphical user interfaces on relatively easy-to-install CDs. They include inexpensive or free office suites, browsers, image editors and e-mail.

Typically, for less than $150 per machine, you can quickly outfit your Intel PCs and get a modicum of vendor support.

A sampling of OS distributions and Linux applications, from Web browsers to database software, is included in the accompanying chart. But in discussing how to make the most of Linux on your desktop PC, I'll also mention some software products that can help you run Linux with Microsoft Windows systems and alongside Windows applications.

Commercial Linux options are proliferating. StarOffice has undergone a major upgrade (see Close-Up, below). Xandros Corp. of Ottawa, heir to Corel Corp.'s Corel Linux OS and WordPerfect Suite, plans to release Xandros Linux Desktop 1.0 this summer.

And a lot of people are waiting for Lindows.com Inc. of San Diego to release Lindows, software that aims to run Windows applications on dual Windows/Linux machines or, somewhat amazingly, with no Windows installed at all.

Windows without Windows

Lindows is significant because it makes Windows application compatibility more economical by removing the need to pay for Windows, something Windows emulators such as Win4Lin from NeTraverse Inc. of Austin, Texas, and VMware Workstation from VMware Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif., haven't been able to do. Lindows' future could partly depend on the outcome of lawsuits filed by Microsoft.

On the other side of Linux applications are the open-source projects, where you'll find more programs but little or none of the guaranteed support you may need to find your comfort zone.

Still, mainstays such as GIMP, the Adobe Photoshop-like graphics editor, GNUcash, a personal-finance program, and the Mozilla Organization's Mozilla browser have won good reviews as easy-to-use, feature-rich rivals to Windows counterparts.

With native Linux apps poorly supported, and most of the supported software not running natively on Linux, a better choice might be to separate Windows applications from Linux desktop PCs.

One approach is to run Windows programs on the server using software that supports Linux desktop clients, as do application servers such as Oracle Application Server and Lotus Domino.

Other products, such as Go-Global from GraphOn Corp. of Morgan Hill, Calif., provide a virtual user interface that sits between server and client, said Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of system software at International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass.

It's also possible to run many server programs in thin-client mode on Linux Web browsers such as Netscape Navigator'and its open-source core, Mozilla'and Opera.

Paid Linux client-side installations only have 3.7 percent of the worldwide market, according to IDC, so the OS doesn't come near Windows as a government desktop PC standard. But that base has grown, and the real number could be higher when you add free downloads, which IDC doesn't count, Kusnetzky says.

Linux vendors and analysts say the Linux Standards Base, an effort of the Free Standards Group to forge a cross-platform binary file standard, promises to spur application development. By ensuring that a single code base runs on multiple Linux distributions, LSB could make it more lucrative for vendors to invest in product development.

'It's going to improve the environment for developers over time,' Kusnetzky said, adding that compliance testing is now underway, and applications should be available within a year. In the longer term, the general move toward Web services and server-based applications should help spread Linux across more client platforms, including cell phones and personal digital assistants.

But nothing will boost it like a large installed base on desktop PCs. 'There has to be a poster-child reference,' such as a major organization converting its desktops to Linux, said Stacey Quandt, industry analyst for Giga Information Group of Santa Clara, Calif.

The accompanying product table shows the best-known free desktop applications, as well as promising commercial products, including Linux desktop OSes available with bundled applications. You won't find applications that are primarily server-based, though many, including StarOffice and IBM Corp.'s DB/2 database, can run on either end of the network.

Combining Linux's famed stability, security, and affordability with low-cost client options can significantly lower an agency's total cost of ownership. But without enough quality native applications, desktop Linux will remain an unacceptable risk for most.

David Essex is a freelance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.

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