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Every technology publication worth its Microsoft advertisements has written a story about the rise of desktop Linux. Most of them write the story close to four times a year - once for each LinuxWorld conference, once after Sun Microsystems calls enough and once for a random vendor - insert SuSE, Red Hat, Linspire or Lycoris here.

The upshot of all these stories is that desktop Linux is still in a dismal state. And it took the Desktop Summit last week in San Diego to remind us of it.

Before Linspire CEO Michael Robertson or any one of you opinionated readers out there begins to hemorrhage, let's be clear. The average version of Linux aimed at the desktop works so much better today than it did one, two or even three years ago - when the Linux on the desktop stories started in earnest.

Kool Aid-filled reporters used to straight out lie to their leaders and proclaim Linux ready for grandma. Like anyone else, the reporters rooted for the underdog and did what they could to push it along.

Linux still isn't ready for grandma, but it might be ready for your stoner friend who'll experiment with anything or for a curious type willing to put up with some discomfort. This doesn't get us terribly far past the technology savvy desktop Linux lovers around today, but it pushes up against a point that could be called Freak Mainstream.

You'd think every company interested in desktop Linux and the embrace of the Freak Mainstream would show up at the Desktop Summit. In particular, you might expect to see all the vendors that are trying to create a Freak Mainstream in the enterprise. IBM loves Linux, right? Surely, it could put a few bucks toward a conference all about desktop Linux? Not so. (To understand the Linux/Gun connection click here. Deep breaths, Mr Raymond and thanks, Flip.)

From what we can tell, most companies see the Desktop Summit as a type of Linspire developer conference, which it largely is. Linspire put up $100,000 to make the thing happen and dominates the meager show floor. A Michael Robertson-led endeavor - things like Linspire, SIPphone, MP3tunes - accounted for at least 7 of the 27 booths. Big players such as AMD, Real and Novell showed up, but Sun, IBM, Intel, HP and others were absent. Most of them were preparing for this week's Linux World show, but these are large companies with resources and bodies to spare for a couple days in San Diego.

The company that made the most out of the Desktop Summit was Sub300.com. This assembler of cheap desktops and laptops knew exactly how to cater to the Linux crowd. It rolled out a different pair of booth babes every day and had them sit on top of a flashy, black car and hold laptops. Sub300 makes sleek, compact gear and is worth a look if you're in the hunt for a new Linux desktop. It's a close partner of Linspire, as well, if you're in the market for a hardware/OS bundle.

NeTraverse used the event to announce that is has become Win4Lin. The Win4Lin name used to be a brand for one set of NeTraverse products, but now it's Win4Lin or bust. The company makes a number of products for running Windows applications on a Linux operating system. It uses virtual machine technology similar to that from VMware or Connectix (now Microsoft) but focuses solely on the Linux desktop. It has just released a product - Win4Lin Pro - that can run Windows 2000 and XP applications.

Another company present at the show and working on Windows to Linux migration was Alacos. It has products for shifting both PC and server software and can chat up the consulting angle as well. The main product being touted at the conference was the Linux Migration Agent package. This software will pick select documents, e-mail and user settings from PCs and transfer them over to Linux boxes.

Few of the other small players at the Desktop Summit grabbed our attention. The case might have been different for those of you into Garage Games, Deviant Art and The Chris Pirillo Show.

It would be nice to see other vendors absorb some of the Desktop Summit costs and remove pressure and attention from Linspire. A solid gathering devoted to desktop Linux would go a long way to drumming up even more interest in the software. The desktop is often lost at Linux World where the corporate, server-focused players dominate the event. The desktop may not present as immediate returns to these vendors, but it's key to eroding Microsoft's monopoly over the long term. Every group of corporate desktops freed from Windows opens up a potential server sale. Desktop success also captures the public's attention and keeps mainstream interest in Linux high.

From what we can tell, Linspire would gladly give up control over the event and even provide a forum for its rivals if the desktop idea as a whole could garner more attention.

For those not able to attend the event, be sure to check out Simon Phipps's slides here. All of the audio from the show should go up here soon. ®

Full Summit Coverage

Linux maker sprouts MP3 server
Real may or may not mature on Linux
No DRM in Mr. Robertson's neighborhood
MP3tunes cleared of DRM infection
MP3.com founder vows unchained melodies

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