Desktop Linux: Ready for the mainstream

Organizations can adopt Linux for many users, and save the high upgrade costs of Vista or Windows 7

It's been a decade since Linux proponents first argued their OS was ready for mainstream adoption. Yet for all intents and purposes, Linux remains nonexistent on "regular" people's desks. Sure, developers and other tech experts use Linux, but that's about it.

So when my colleague Neil McAllister, author of InfoWorld's Fatal Exception blog, made the case for desktop Linux, I snorted, "Give me a break! Desktop Linux is nowhere." He challenged me to try it myself. He had a point: It had been a decade since I fired up any desktop Linux distro. So I accepted his challenge.

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My verdict: Desktop Linux is a great choice for many regular Joes with basic computer needs. And not just on netbooks.

In fact, I found that it makes a lot of sense to standardize office workers on desktop Linux. I now understand why governments in Asia and Europe say they want to get off the Microsoft train and shift to Linux. I thought these were empty threats meant to get better licensing deals or to blunt some of Microsoft's monopolistic power, but as it turns out, desktop Linux is a worthwhile option for both public organizations and private companies. Those who standardize on Linux would save serious money on the new equipment needed for Vista or Windows 7, not to mention OS and Office upgrades as well. Your business could, too.

Moreover, Linux-based shops would require significantly less training than they would to teach staff Vista or Windows 7 and Microsoft Office 2007.

Let's face reality: Most people use just Microsoft Office, e-mail, and the Web at work. For that, you don't need an expensive, resource-hogging suite like Office or a piggy operating system like Windows Vista or Windows 7. You don't even need my favorite OS, Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. Plus, adopting Linux will solve some of IT's headaches when it comes to PC management.

Let me explain.

An easier transition from XP than going to Vista
I set up a virtual machine on my Mac and loaded Ubuntu 8.1. (Why Ubuntu? Reviewers single it out as the best desktop Linux. Many folks like Novell's Suse as well. And there are other Linux choices.) It booted like a real OS, with the familiar GUI of Windows XP and its predecessors and of the Mac OS: icons for disks and folders, a standard menu structure, and built-in support for common hardware such as networks, printers, and DVD burners.

Yes, I know that a Parallels Desktop or EMC VMware Fusion virtual machine is not a real PC, with all the variables per PC model that can make Linux not work on some models. But that's beside the point. Dell and others offer Linux-equipped PCs if you want that assurance. If you have a standard desktop configuration in your business, you'll find out quickly if it's Linux-compatible. And yes, you may discover that Linux doesn't work on your laptops, as InfoWorld Enterprise Desktop blogger Randall C. Kennedy learned when he tried Ubuntu 8.04 a year ago.

I was struck by how XP-like Ubuntu is. And that's a good thing. It took me very little time to find where standard functions are, given the similarities. In fact, it's a much easier transition. The menu structure is clear and not hidden. There's none of the "I'm so complex I must hide myself in gewgaws" nonsense that Microsoft has convinced itself, in Vista and Windows 7, makes a good UI but in fact further complicates an already hodgepodge user interface. (Gluing feathers on a platypus won't make it fly.) Users can get to work without guessing what Microsoft thinks they ought to do.

Adding Hewlett-Packard and Brother network printers was trivial -- easier than in Windows and about the same as on the Mac. But I did have to install drivers for the Brother's fax and scanner capabilities, and these required command-line installation via the Terminal. Using an external USB media card drive was also no biggie; Ubuntu detected both the drive and the SD card I inserted, saw it contained photos, and asked to launch a photo management app. You can expect to come across compatibility issues with more exotic hardware, but most business PCs don't typically include that class of consumer-oriented gear.

Well-suited for office workers, but not specialty users
After basic compatibility with PC hardware, the big criticism of desktop Linux is the state of its apps. There's good news and bad news here. Ubuntu comes with the Mozilla Firefox Web browser and the Evolution Mail client pre-installed, as well as OpenOffice.org's office productivity suite.

Firefox is my preferred browser, but if you depend on ActiveX controls for your company's Web apps (which you should not in this multibrowser, multiplatform world), the lack of Internet Explorer could be a deal killer. The Evolution Mail client is fantastic; it easily connects to Exchange Server for mail, calendar, and contacts, using LDAP and Outlook Web Access. The UI is similar to Outlook's but simpler. And in a move that should shame Microsoft, the Evolution Mail client is more compatible with Exchange than is Microsoft's Mac client, Entourage. (One example: I could set an away notice, which I cannot do with Entourage.) You can also run Mozilla Thunderbird if you're POP-oriented, though Evolution Mail also supports POP and IMAP.

OpenOffice is a sound alternative to Microsoft Office, but I spent most of my time with the free IBM Lotus Symphony, which is a slightly better productivity suite than OpenOffice, in the InfoWorld Test Center's evaluation. It's simply more refined and will be easier for Office users to adapt to, even though it lacks the database and drawing applications that OpenOffice has. I'm sure there are features in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint that Symphony and OpenOffice can't match, but you can bet that for 80 percent or more of your "knowledge workers," sales staff, and so on that Symphony or OpenOffice will do the job.

Adobe has made its Reader, AIR, and Flash Player apps available as well, so you can work with PDF files, AIR apps, and Flash media just as Windows and Mac users can. In addition to Symphony, IBM offers a Linux version of Lotus Notes.

All these apps work very much like they do in XP, so your users will need just an hour or two to adjust to accessing them on desktop Linux. Seriously.

Ubuntu has a handy utility to add and remove a broad selection of free Linux apps, from FTP clients to graphics editors, so you don't have to hunt for them. (But the Adobe and IBM apps aren't in it, so it's not complete.) These apps self-install, so you don't have to switch to the Terminal and use sudo privileges and other arcane commands to install them. Sure, IT techs can manage this, but not your users.

I'm disappointed that Cisco's VPN client, which my company uses, has the kind of install that gives desktop Linux a bad rep. You have to know basic Linux commands to navigate to the files in the Terminal, use sudo to get admin privileges, and follow the convoluted install script. As is common with these Terminal-installed apps, there's little documentation, and the Web is full of contradictory and inaccurate instructions on how to install them. Cisco dissuades end-users from getting information at its site, so even after I procured a copy of its VPN client software, I couldn't find reliable instructions for installing it, so I gave up after 40 minutes. I had similar problems installing Parallels Desktop's UI tools into Linux. VMware Fusion uses a Terminal script, but the program runs it for you when you first install Linux, so that's less of an issue. (Note that neither product supports cut and paste between Linux and the Mac, as they do with Windows.)

Let's face it: The app selection for desktop Linux -- especially those designed for regular folks -- is very thin. You won't find BI tools, database apps, media creation apps, and so on, as you would for Windows or the Mac. If you think the Mac has too few apps to be used in business, you'll downright dismiss desktop Linux.

There is the beta Wine app that runs many Windows apps, giving desktop Linux wider reach, as well as the commercial CrossOver version from CodeWeavers. But the list of supported Windows apps is not huge. Moreover, supported versions are often one or more iterations behind what's currently available. But Microsoft Office, Project, and Visio 2003 are all on the list, as are Internet Explorer 6 and Intuit QuickBooks. I tried to install three unsupported apps -- Adobe Acrobat Pro 9, Adobe Photoshop CS4, and H&R Block TaxCut 2008 -- but had poor results. Acrobat 9 managed to install, but the license confirmation dialog box would not close, so I could never use the software. CrossOver claimed to install Photoshop, but it did not. And it couldn't install TaxCut. So don't count on Wine or CrossOver for more than Microsoft Office and supported apps.

Also, though synchronization for Palm devices (as if they matter anymore) is included in Ubuntu, you can't sync to an iPhone, Windows Mobile device, or other handheld -- even though these are increasingly commonplace in business. But Ubuntu can access an iPod's or iPhone's photos as if it were a digital camera. (There are hacks out there to support some of these devices for data and music syncing, but IT doesn't want to rely on hacks.)

Essentially, desktop Linux makes sense as the desktop OS only for those employees who do common work in Office and Web apps. But that's a lot of people.

Solving some of IT's control issues
Desktop Linux's app limitations mean that you'll still need Windows PC or Macs for users who require specialty apps. But they also provide an easy way to assert control over the desktops you manage.

Think about it: Most of your malware worries go away, as does the constant effort to stay up with the latest anti-malware patches. You don't need to worry about users installing games, iTunes, or spyware -- those are designed for Windows (and sometimes the Mac) -- so the need to monitor rogue apps is greatly reduced.

Of course, you won't have the same kind of central system management options that you do for Windows PCs. So you'll need to rely on your Linux distro's update manager, as well as your apps. This automated, client-level approach is also standard on Windows and Mac OS, even though many IT organizations don't like it and instead want to validate and apply such patches centrally. The more control you want, the less you'll like desktop Linux (just as you probably don't like the Mac).

But desktop Linux does support basic Active Directory authentication for user access management.

I'm not suggesting every organization chuck its Windows or Mac OSes for desktop Linux. But many companies, government agencies, and educational institutions can chuck at least some of them. Those based on XP -- or Windows 2000, which still has a huge installed base in government agencies -- can look to big savings on licensing, hardware, and training costs.

Desktop Linux and its core productivity apps are solid and worth serious consideration for many of your users' PCs. Try it yourself.

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