Desktop Linux relies on the kindness of strangers

Distos key to Portland Project

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An OSDL project to simplify porting and integration of applications with Linux desktops is gambling on support from Linux distros and other community standards efforts.

Organizers of the Portland Project, released to beta this week, are talking to Linux providers to achieve distribution with their desktop software, and the Free Standards Group's Linux Standards Base (LSB) to receive the FSG's "official recognition."

China's Red Flag Linux and TurboLinux apparently wish to include the Portland Project's command line tools with their distributions but Linux market leader Red Hat is not committing until it has tested Portland.

Waldo Bastian, chairman of the technical board of the OSDL desktop Linux initiative, told The Register: "We'd like Red Hat to include these tools and take ownership of these tools so they can say: 'We have tested this and it works on our future product release'."

As ever in these things, Red Hat's support is vital. With its commanding market share and high-brand awareness among customers as well as developers Red Hat is key in driving uptake of the Portland Project in Europe and the US, even though Red Hat's own success is founded more on the server than the desktop.

In a cruel twist, Portland's uptake by FSG hinges on acceptance by Red Hat and others as FSG will only endorse Portland as an "existing standard or practice" according to Bastian speaking during this week's Gnome User Developer conference in Catalonia, Spain. "It [FSG uptake] depends on how successful we are in getting distributions to adopt it."

The Portland Project is the latest effort to increase the number of applications available for Linux, in this case desktop Linux, and actually follows in the LSB's footsteps. The project promises a set of command-line tools that simplify the installation and integration of ISVs applications with the Linux desktop.

While a worthy effort, the work lends some weight to criticism earlier this year from Microsoft that open source desktop and Office efforts are simply repeating the work it achieved 10 years before with Windows and Office integration. For example, future work at Portland will tackle use of a common print window for different applications running on the Linux desktop.

There is doubt, too, about whether a Linux and open source client architecture will be enough to tear users away from the familiarity and comfort of Windows/Office.

There's also the OEM and channel question to tackle. Linux has seen patchy desktop support from PC companies leaving IBM as the single largest distributor of Linux, which it achieves by supplying hardware servers.

On Office, Microsoft keeps the channel happy with big fat Office offers and paid promotions that keep the dollars coming in and protect retailers' bottom line. That's a relationship few can break, as Sun Microsystems discovered in April 2004 when it tried, and failed, to drive consumer uptake of its Java Desktop System on PCs sold at retail monolith Walmart - an idea of Sun software's then up-and-coming executive vice president Jonathan Schwartz.

According to Waldo, Portland's success may come to depend on yet another standard - Open Document Format (ODF), the XML file format used in StarOffice, OpenOffice, IBM's Workplace and the Novell desktop.

"ODF provides an improved way of managing Office documents," Bastian said. "Once you create an environment for standardized document exchange you will let your organization take advantage of running your desktop environment on Linux instead of Windows."®

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