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OSDL cautiously optimistic on desktop Linux

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The Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) has voiced cautious optimism that its latest initiative could finally herald a mass-market for Linux on the desktop.

OSDL is pushing ahead with Project Portland, to develop a common set of core technical requirements for Linux and open source software on the desktop, following a meeting of 47 companies and organizations it hosted earlier this month.

Portland has identified a core set of areas, spanning the interface, plug-and-play, drivers and the kernel, that OSDL members will flesh out.

The goal is to create a common framework for greater interoperability between different Linux and open source software components on the PC. A framework is expected to reduce usability issues for the end user and remove technology hurdles for ISVs who want to be able to not only port desktop applications from closed to open source but to also ensure their software works on different Linux desktops after just a single port.

In case any of this sounds familiar, it should. The Free Standards Group (FSG) in October announced the Linux Standard Base Desktop Project, which will standardize common libraries and application behavior in Linux for the desktop. Portland, which will be incorporated into the Linux Standard Base (LSB) 4.0 next year, will produce a common interface framework.

FSG's LSB was last month ratified as an ISO standard after five years' work, but only after it saw limited success in the early days thanks - in part - to a lack of support from distribution market leader Red Hat.

OSDL believes the level of support already expressed for Portland demonstrates the project's potential to be more successful than LSB at an earlier stage. Among the first meeting's attendees were representatives from Adobe Systems, AMD, Eclipse, FSG, Gnome, IBM, Intel, KDE, Mozilla, Nokia, OpenOffice and - yes - Red Hat. Many of these are also participating in the FSG's work.

"It was an eye-popping experience that these guys got together," OSDL principal analyst Dave Rosenburg told The Register. "Once those base line [standards] are established, a large majority of those guys will go with them."

He also feels the fact this work is being conducted at the OSDL brings with it the kind of clout that will establish the standard and ensure industry uptake. A critical failing in Linux and open source on the desktop has been the very noticeable reluctance of leading OEM Dell to ship a PC running Linux and a full suite of open source desktop productivity software. OSDL hopes it can overcome this by maintaining a vendor-neutral forum and regular contacts with OEMs like Dell.

Open source and Linux desktops have enjoyed varying degrees of success, despite frequent predictions in recent years this would be year of the Linux desktop. WStarOffice, OpenOffice, KDE and Ximian are played-up as alternatives to applications in Microsoft's Office, but Rosenburg says these open source suites have failed to achieve broad adoption because they lack good email or productivity alternatives to Office.

A recent OSDL poll of 3,000 users found that lack of application support was the biggest factor preventing customers from switching to an open source desktop.

According to Rosenburg, Portland could encourage a Red Hat or Novell to deliver a full open source desktop stack, which meets users' requirements on application support and addresses usability issues, such as consistency of buttons and menus between a word processing and a spread sheet application.

He resists falling in to the trap of predicting Portland means 2006 will be "the year of Linux desktop," but is confident it can capitalize on the buzz that Mozilla's Firefox has created around open source software on the desktop. Firefox has gained 11.51 per cent of the browser market in the year since its release.

"Linux on desktop has been coming for years. The last three years has been 'the year of the Linux desktop.' Firefox has made a big difference in getting open source on top of everyone's desktop - that's made it more feasible," Roseburg said.

"I won't say it [2006 is the year of the Linux desktop], but we are going to get closer. If we had a true competitor to Microsoft Office, then I'd say that will be the year of desktop Linux." ®

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