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18th December 2005


Brian Grainger

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2005 was, at the beginning, touted as the possible year of the breakthrough of the Linux desktop. As it draws to a close it is clear that, just as in all previous years, it is not to be. Windows rules supreme in this area. This article proposes a possible reason for this and, having determined the stumbling block, what has to be done to remove it.

Each of the last few years has been touted as the year of the Linux desktop. That is, the time when desktop users will finally break the bond with Windows and run the Linux operating system. It has been touted so often it has become a bit of a joke, even in the Linux community. In 2005 Linux has made some inroads, in specific areas, but Windows reigns supreme. Why, after all the negative publicity for Windows and largely positive publicity for Linux, is this the case?

A recent survey by a consultant revealed that lack of applications was a major reason for not taking up Linux. I was a bit surprised by this. As I have been saying in my reviews of the various Live CDs, all the major tasks have a Linux program to help. Open Office and Firefox provide the two major office needs of a browser and Office suite. The home user had all the tools for listening and viewing multimedia, burning CDs and so on. Where is the lack of applications?

I have a problem with surveys. They always ask fixed questions and you have to tick a box to give your response from a selection of answers the survey provides! This is not the way to get useful information. I always find the answer I want to give is never one of those supplied. Alternatively, I need to embellish my answer for it to be useful. It is no good saying I regard customer service as pathetic if I do not say why I consider it pathetic. Nothing is going to change just by knowing something is wrong but not knowing what that something is!

Anyway, back to the plot. A member of my local ICPUG group was going to install Linux last month so when I saw him again this month I decided to ask how it went. Then I sat back and listened - which is important if you want real understanding.

The user was well pleased with his Linux - his son installed the Ubuntu distro for him, so he did not have any installation worries that might beset some people. It is also fair to say that he is anti monopolies so there is a fair antagonism towards Microsoft. As I say, he thought Linux was great ... BUT there were some applications he ran which needed Windows. Its the lack of applications for Linux again. As he ran a small business I knew there might be a problem with his accounts package, so I enquired if that was the problem. No, that was OK because it was running on another Windows based PC.

I asked what applications he had to run Windows for. His reply - Autoroute! This is not the most obvious application when one thinks about office software. However, he uses Autoroute to determine how to travel to a new customer. Perfectly reasonable. Another option, which we discussed, was using a web based solution, such as www.streetmaps.co.uk or multimap. Both had deficiencies for this user.

While I was listening, the user expanded on his difficulties. It was not so much that he wanted to run Windows but that in order to do so one has to reboot the machine. This is true. I have no qualms about rebooting my PC to change OS, but it is time consuming and irritating for your general user. I was beginning to see why I keep seeing queries in the Linux forums about whether you can run a distro under Windows. They want to be able to swap between Windows and Linux easily, just like my local ICPUG member.

This got me thinking. At work the next day I was thinking about the applications I use. I suspect 99% of my time is spent running Microsoft Office or Internet Explorer. Both are covered by Linux equivalents. However, the first thing I do in the morning is to fire up an application to fill in my timesheet for the previous day. This is a generic package that has been customised for our company's use. How would we do that if we shifted to Linux? We would have to spend money getting an alternative. Now I am beginning to see why lack of applications is a problem for Linux. It is one of the problems as to why I would not by an Apple machine in days gone by. Every application I might want is available for Windows. Not so for anything else.

After further thought it is clear this problem is not going to go away. There will always be some unique piece of software that will not run under Linux. So, if this is a major stumbling block, what is the solution?

My businessman has hinted at the answer. He does not want the open source community to beaver away trying to create a replica of every Windows package he might use. He wants to switch operating systems, quickly and transparently, when needed. It is so obvious. Unfortunately, it is not possible yet. There are some possibilities. There is a package called QEMU that, within an OS, will allow you to emulate another machine, on which an alternative OS could run. Crossover Office allows certain Windows packages to run under Linux. These go part way to a solution, but are not the full answer. What we need is the ability for a PC to run two operating systems at the same time!

Now, it just so happens that in 2006 that both Intel and AMD are releasing processors that will allow a single piece of hardware to be split into electrically isolated partitions. The Intel solution is called VT and AMD's is called Pacifica. This partitioning technology is a derivative from the old mainframe way of working. The reason for bringing it to the PC is to combat the security problem where one application (malware) tramples over the memory space of another (legitimate) application. Keep things isolated and the problem is reduced.

Now I do not know anything about this new technology. If it is not just separate applications, but separate OS, that can run in the partitions, maybe Linux and Windows applications can co-exist.

2007 for the year of the Linux desktop, anybody?