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Linux: it's the Desktop, Stupid!

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Why hasn't Linux lived up to the hype of the last few years?

Bruce Tober posed this question today to several industry experts at the Linux User & Development Expo in Birmingham.

Jon "Maddog" Hall, president of Linux International, notes that the Linux market falls into three potential segments, Corporate, SME and Personal users. As far as the corporates are concerned, the situation with Linux is no different than that of Windows, he says. the SYSADMIN installs the program group and configuration to each thin client workstation either from the server or a CD with the image burnt in. Users have no access to anything other than the specific programs and data they're allowed to access. They're all trained with one person in each sector being trained as the local guru. If the users need help they check with the local guru. If he doesn't know the answer, he checks with the SYSADMIN and if she doesn't know the answer, she checks with the software vendor. "That's how it's done whether the company is using Linux or Windows,” Hall says.

With SMEs it's a similar situation with the head or manager of the company having the responsibilities for determining what applications are to be available to each user and how accessible the programs and data are to which users. A Value-Added Reseller (VAR) does the installation and configuration, comes in once a week to do a major backup and make sure everything's working properly and help to determine if additional hardware or software is needed. A local guru can be available or the VAR can provide Tech Support services.

But for end-users, Hall (and most other experts I spoke to today agree), Linux isn't quite ready; and a major reason is the desktop.

According to Jim McQuillan, founder and project leader of the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP), Linux falls down with the home user in its "failure of design. It's too cluttered with techie stuff on the desktop." Techies own Linux, control it, design it. Their inability to attract home users, who all too often can't even program the clock on their VCRs, is very much down to a failure to do usability studies, he said. Such studies are long, costly and involved and since the Linux community is so widespread and diversified throughout the world, there is no central body looking into such matters.

This means that newbies may successfully install a Linux distribution, or see one at a friend's home, and is then be faced with a desktop full of application icons he doesn't begin to understand and most of which he doesn't need. Most of the experts I spoke with claim the newer versions of the various distributions are more home user user- friendly in terms of the applications they initially install to the desktop.

But the feeling is that the user must somehow find out what those distributions are and get one of them. But finding out which are which is unfortunately rather more difficult than not. ®

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