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Choice breeds complexity for Linux desktop

New tricks for old dog

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The success of the Everex gPC this month raises once again the possibility that Linux can make inroads into the desktop market. In stock at Walmart, initial sales of the gPC caused panic on a scale comparable to the recent stock market panic. Not only has the gPC sold well - it has also proved popular.

It helps that gPC ticks all the right boxes. It claims to be fashionably "green" - hence the "g". At $199, it is ridiculously inexpensive. And it comes with a pre-packaged Linux-based operating system. Perhaps more importantly, the gPC is a basic, stripped-down device, suited to simple tasks such as word processing, e-mail and acting as a client for online applications. This is all a lot of computer users want.

The "Linux is set to take over the desktop" story is, of course, a seasoned perennial that invariably provokes a strong reaction from the developer community. But despite its acknowledged technical superiority, its success as a base for servers and its position as a low-cost alternative to Microsoft's Windows software, Linux-based desktops have so far failed to attract desktop users in significant numbers. Statistics from W3C and a recent Linux community survey show it running behind even Apple's Mac OS/X with around two per cent of desktops.

The gPC and Dell's decision earlier this year to offer a pre-packaged Unbuntu Linux deal aside, the future for Linux on the desktop still looks quiet - despite hopeful predictions of its success. A recent report from Forrester forecasts 2008 as the year when Vista - not Linux - will start to erode the current dominance of Windows XP. Forrester estimates that about 40 per cent of corporate users in the USA and Europe will have moved to Vista by the end of next year.

There are lots of reasons why Linux has not ousted Windows - many of them nothing to do with technology or logic and more to do with politics. Nevertheless there are still outstanding technical issues - not least is the problem of fragmentation that confuses users and developers alike. A quick scan of a Distrowatch more than illustrates the simple point - yes I know I like Linux - but which version?

It is not only fragmentation. Linux is also in danger of becoming the operating system that "does everything". Linus Torvald noted in a recent interview that you can find Linux everywhere from a supercomputer to a mobile telephone.

While such broad flexibility could be a good thing, and will be welcomed by enthusiasts, it complicates development of Linux in the world of desktop software and makes the idea of a "mass-market" desktop for Linux - that echoes the Windows desktop market - harder to achieve.®

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