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Preaching the virtues of Linux

The business community's resistance isn't holding back Linux desktop adoption, says Linux expert Peter van der Linden. It's the development community that is slowing things down. Van der Linden describes the app gap and other barriers in this interview.

Peter van der Linden is on a crusade to educate the masses about the virtues of open source. His message can be persuasive -- the Linux evangelist boasts that he even coaxed his 80-year-old father away from a lifelong relationship with Windows.

An engineering manager at PalmSource Inc., the maker of the handheld operating system Palm OS, van der Linden has attracted the attention of the Linux world by publishing several books on open system software. His latest, Peter van der Linden's Guide to Linux, helps Windows users make the move to Linux.

At the Linux Desktop Summit in San Diego, van der Linden spoke with's MiMi Yeh about why applications are key to bridging the consumer gap and how Freespire, a new Linux distribution, will attract users to Linux.

What Linux desktop adoption trends do you see now?

Peter van der Linden: I think we're in a growth phase. People have been saying 'this year is the year of the desktop' since 2000, at least. There have obviously been tremendous barriers to that.

I'm really encouraged by Linspire opening up a free version of their product [Freespire]. I think that it's one of the most capable desktop distros out there -- if not the most capable. It's going to make it possible for Linux advocates to put a free copy on their grandmother's PC and have it be usable.

I think the applications have to keep coming. Support for hardware has to keep coming. Wireless is still a problem. I have yet to see a reliable USB Wi-Fi connector in Linux or in any distro.

What are some immediate barriers you see preventing the average business worker from using the Linux desktop?

Van der Linden: The biggest barrier, bar none, is that the whole world has gone with a different standard. It's like Betamax versus VHS. [Linux is] the Betamax. It's technically better, and yet it's not the standard that the world has chosen. This is why I see applications as being the crowbar that pries open the clamshell of Windows bigotry.

I personally converted my dad from Windows. He'd been a Windows user forever. He's 80 years old. He's not interested in changing anything, but he was having so many security problems such as viruses, spyware and adware. He came to me one day and said 'Pete, I don't feel like my PC is my own anymore. My password has been changed out from under me. I didn't do it. The modem light blinks when I'm not using my PC. I think the modem is being used.'

His PC had been taken over by a bot network. I switched him [over to Linux] and he is happy as a clam.

Where do you think applications need to go for Linux to come into the mainstream?

Van der Linden: The No. 1 thing I would like to see is commercial companies, like [Intuit Inc.'s] TurboTax, offering Linux versions of their software. It's probably premature to ask for that. They're going to want to see the money and the volume first before they start playing to that market.

What I'd really like to see is for OpenOffice to become more polished. Why do my documents get relayed out when I transfer them in OpenOffice? I wrote my presentation on a Mac, originally in OpenOffice. When I uploaded it to my Linux laptop, everything was out of alignment. The font sizes, styles and graphics were different so I had to go back through the whole talk to fix it up. Why would that be? It's OpenOffice. It needs to be more compatible with itself.

How are applications a barrier to the Linux desktop?

Van der Linden: The barriers to application programmers on Linux are very high. If you want to produce graphical applications, you've got to learn either QT or GTK, a complete toolkit, libraries and the desktop environment.

There's a very high entry cost for programmers who want to give to the Linux effort, and I'm interested in lowering that cost.

What do you think is the next step for the Linux business desktop?

Van der Linden: I'd like to see more wins like the city of Munich, the high school in Chicago. I'm looking for big public wins where there will be an IT director who can make a commitment, make it stick and, best of all, prove it's successful for their users.

Do you think Linux can compete with Microsoft in the consumer market?

Van der Linden: There's no question that Linux is capable. Take a distro like Linspire. They've gone to some effort to make all the codecs work so you can play Flash content, watch DVDs and run your QuickTime movies. It's every bit as capable.

Microsoft has been horrible for our industry. There used to be 20 word processors in the early 1980s all battling it out with 20 programming teams employed. Now, it's a monoculture. I think Apple is doing a great job. The Apple products and design are exciting. I see them as being a big winner.

What proprietary applications do you think are the best targets to replace with open source software?

Van der Linden: Get rid of Internet Explorer. It's such a virus propagator and an avenue for spyware. Get Firefox up on there. It's a great application, and it just keeps getting better. It has wonderful plug-in architecture.

I'm a news junkie. I like to read a lot of political news and stay abreast of the situation. I'm registered at many newspaper sites. Firefox has a plug-in that means you don't have to register. It has a database for The New York Times. When you go to The New York Times Web site and it challenges you for a password, Firefox can automatically fill that in for that site as well as others. It's a micro-niche for inventive programmers.

How can IT managers introduce open source software to their enterprises?

Van der Linden: You start by shifting the applications first, so you get people using a safer browser. You sell it on the basis of safety. Then you get some people changed over to OpenOffice. You can't do that for everyone because the macros don't carry over.

If your finance department is using Excel macros, you're toast. However, you can change most users over on the application side. Once you've done that and consolidated that with safer, cheaper equally good applications, you can swap out the operating system.

You've got to spoon-feed users. You've got to take little steps you can be successful in.

In what areas of technology do you think Windows is stronger than Linux?

Van der Linden: There is only one area that Microsoft has ever won in, and that's marketing. Their technology sucks. That's not just my opinion, that's the opinion of every technical person who's looked at it in detail.

The "blue screen of death" got its name from Microsoft for a reason. They're not that good at writing software.

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