Linux on Your Desktop

When you think of a personal computer, you probably think of one running Windows. Microsoft's near-ubiquitous operating system runs on 94 percent of desktop PCs, according to experts. But could the upstart Linux OS soon replace Windows on a computer near you?

Linux is a combination of a UNIX-like operating system and a bunch of handy programs and utilities that give you roughly the same functionality as Windows. Free, both in the sense of "free beer," and "free choice," Linux has consistently garnered somewhere between 2 and 3 percent of the desktop market in recent years, which is about the same as Apple's Mac OS. And industry watchers have predicted an imminent surge in Linux use.

Today, a confluence of factors may finally bear out their optimism and make Linux a more familiar sight in homes and offices by the end of the decade. But what's really in it for the average PC user? Cheaper software? Fewer viruses? Relief from system crashes? Maybe, but don't necessarily count on it. Because even though Linux has evolved into a serious alternative to Windows, many people will be better off sticking it out with Microsoft.

Getting Better All the Time

One key indicator of Linux's gradual acceptance is its growing popularity as a server operating system. Compared to its sliver of the desktop OS market, Linux garnered a much larger 23 percent of the server market in 2002, says research firm IDC. Linux is also getting strong support from traditional computing vendors such as Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Novell, and Sun Microsystems, which are looking for ways to compete with Microsoft.

Novell recently acquired SuSE (pronounced "SUE-say"), maker of one of the most popular packaged Linux versions, or distributions. The company also bought Ximian, developer of the Gnome graphical user interface and the Evolution e-mail client, a Microsoft Outlook look-alike that comes in most popular Linux distributions.

Even Sun, which made its name selling servers that run the company's proprietary Solaris operating system, has gotten into the Linux desktop game. Sun's distribution, the Java Desktop System, combines Linux, Gnome, Evolution, the StarOffice application suite, and the Mozilla Web browser. Sun's offering isn't much different from other distributions--but the company has also managed to have its software preinstalled on bargain PCs that will be sold through Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer. (Linspire, formerly Lindows, pioneered Linux-based PCs at Wal-Mart.)

All of this, combined with steady improvements in usability, features, and hardware support, could push Linux onto as many as 10 percent of all desktop PCs by the end of the decade, according to a recent article in The Economist. And last year a researcher with technology giant Siemens predicted Linux use would grow to 20 percent by 2008.

Linux Roadblocks

But the road won't be smooth. IBM and Novell are currently embroiled in a copyright dispute with The SCO Group that casts a shadow over the legality of Linux's source code (see the accompanying article titled "Who's Suing Who?" for more information). And while Sun may have scored big with its Wal-Mart deal, the company may not be around long enough to reap the rewards. Sun's revenues have fallen for three straight years, and it lost $760 million dollars in its most recent quarter.

More significantly, Microsoft enjoys a considerable advantage over Linux's community of developers in the area of hardware compatibility and support. Microsoft has poured millions of dollars into training hardware vendors to write Windows drivers for their products. Given Windows' overwhelming popularity, shipping a product without Windows support is rarely an option. As a result, when you buy a new PDA, mobile phone, digital camera, scanner, printer, or other device, you can be fairly certain it will connect to and/or synchronize with Microsoft's operating systems. And if your new device comes with additional drivers and software, they will usually be compatible with Apple computers as well.

Linux simply doesn't enjoy the same hardware support. With a little extra effort, the average computer user can install Linux on a desktop PC; configure display, networking, and audio drivers; browse the Web; send and receive e-mail; edit Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents; and even synchronize a Palm PDA. More exotic technologies and devices such as Bluetooth, advanced power management, and 3D gaming, may be supported too--but be prepared to spend time learning how to install and configure them.

With few exceptions (Hewlett-Packard's growing Linux support is a notable one), you can't just go to a device manufacturer's Web site, download a Linux driver, and run its installer with a few clicks and be on your way. Linux how-tos and support sites are plentiful, but to do everything with your PC under Linux that you do under Windows, you'll probably need to become more of an expert. And if no individual programmer or other Linux contributor has prioritized writing the Linux code that supports your favorite hardware tool, you may have to abandon the idea of using that device with Linux.

And keep in mind: Just because Linux is available for free doesn't mean it's low-cost. Training and support expenses can outstrip licensing fees. Meanwhile, Microsoft has worked hard to make Windows and its Office applications understandable to nontechnical users.

The Right Tool for the Job

Ultimately, Linux may make Windows a better OS, and vice versa, because choice breeds innovation. Windows isn't entirely crash-proof yet, but many Windows XP users have never seen the so-called Blue Screen of Death that pops up when older versions of Windows decide to stop working. And though Windows is the target of most viruses, worms, spyware, and other Internet-based attacks, Microsoft is doing a creditable job of beefing up Windows XP's security. The company has begun publishing frequent patches and plans to include many security features in its forthcoming Service Pack 2.

Still, a free copy of Linux may be superior to Windows XP for many tasks. For example, loading Linux is a great way to squeeze a few extra years out of an aging system that is still chugging along on the crash-prone and highly insecure Windows 98. Using Linux also makes sense if you have a newer system but don't need to hook up the latest doodads to your PC. And if you're simply fed up with all the viruses and worms aimed at Windows PCs, Linux starts to look plenty good.

As successive Linux versions continue to add features and user-friendliness, the case for switching from Windows will only get stronger. And the more Linux users there are, the more hardware and software vendors will want to make their products work with the OS. You might even find yourself someday using Microsoft Office for Linux. Stranger things have happened.

PC World Contributing Editor Scott Spanbauer writes the magazine's Internet Tips column.

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