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Linux desktop adoption barriers: Open source apps development and integration

Find out why one desktop advocate thinks that most sys admins and developers couldn't care less about the upcoming Vista release and how the Linux desktop remains ahead of the game.

Integration and development of open source apps is what is needed to drive users toward the Linux desktop, said Jono Bacon, app development specialist for OpenAdvantage, a developer of open source software in Birmingham, England.

Developers and systems administrators couldn't care less about the release of Vista or the success of the Linux desktop, said Bacon, who is also one of the authors of The Official Ubuntu Book. What they want is an OS that works right out of the box and one that offers a full software stack, he said. Recently the Freespire Linux-based operating system was announced, and SuSE Linux Desktop -- also known as SLED 10 -- was released. Which event do you think will have the biggest impact on the Linux desktop?

Jono Bacon: Recent developments on the Linux desktop front are constantly pushing Linux in front of people, and it becomes an ever-more compelling choice. Recent releases, most notably Ubuntu 6.06 LTS and SLED, work right out of the box for most people and provide a pretty complete software stack. People just don't want to fight with the operating system, and, today, Linux is a particularly fluid system.

I don't believe any single event can have a huge measured effect on desktop adoption -- it is, instead, a series of smaller steps that combine to make the whole. The increasing importance of community in the marketplace, ever-more mature software, flexible support, better licensing, automation, aesthetics, hardware compatibility, integration and other factors each play a role. Importantly, we are moving forward, and at one hell of a pace.

Do you think there are any changes in adoption trends that have been overlooked?

Bacon: A few key areas do seem to have been skirted over. Firstly, most of the press about Linux and open source versus Windows focuses on large enterprise contracts. Although this applies to certain readers, a huge number of people work in small to medium-sized organizations, and open source is making a win there -- particularly in the server, desktop and Web applications space.

There is also an increasing trend in open source on platforms such as Windows and Mac OS X. Many people feel that open source is just a Linux thing, but many Windows and .NET developers are making use of open source. I experienced this recently when I spoke at the DeveloperDeveloperDeveloper! Day, which pulled together a number of Microsoft user groups and Microsoft developers. There were a stunning number of people making use of open source.

Finally, the Linux marketplace is changing with respect to the prioritization of the open source community. With distributions such as Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSUSE and Freespire, the companies behind them are placing a very real priority on the community. Traditionally, the community was shunted to the side by some companies, but many have identified that this is social software, and the community plays an essential role in securing its future and growth.

What do you think of the release of Vista? Do you think there are any major differences between Vista and SLED 10 that would affect adoption?

Bacon: In many ways, Microsoft is a company of grand gestures, and Vista is another example of such a gesture. The legend of Vista is, in many ways, more interesting than the reality. Recently, Microsoft invited me to their Technical Summit at Redmond, and I saw some tech demos of Vista. While I am not denying that it includes some interesting technology, I don't know if the average tech on the ground can justify the upgrade.

Upgrading operating systems is a big deal and, typically, new Windows releases require significant hardware refresh and training. Moving to Vista is not all that different from moving to any operating system -- it requires justification, planning and resources. If the person tasked with the work cannot source these things, it typically gets the thumbs down.

As for how Vista compares to Linux, it largely depends on what you need an operating system for. If you are looking to run a database, create an application, run a server, create artwork, develop Web applications, play games or anything else, you care only about how Vista can solve your primary problem.

Operating systems are general-purpose pieces of software designed for a range of intended uses, and each user explores if the operating system can help to solve their specific problem. As an example, the visual capabilities of Vista have been touted by many as a particularly interesting element. But while this may attract some generic desktop users and designers, I suspect that most developers and system administrators couldn't care less. Operating systems don't excite people all that much. The real comparisons need to be made on the application and/or development stack.

If you compare Windows to Linux in the different-use cases, such as servers, desktop deployment, Web development and general desktop use, Linux is very much a comparable and intriguing platform. It is important to remember, though, that Linux not only competes on a technical level, but it can also compete in areas where Vista either can't compete or is less suitable, such as strong community involvement, collaboration, community support, free redistribution, transparency, learning, hardware recycling and more. Not everything in life is about comparing two columns of tick boxes -- there are many issues to be factored into the decision.

What major advances have you seen on the Linux desktop? Do you think adoption trends have changed at all? Which ones are still the biggest barriers?

Bacon: Wow, that's a big question with a few different parts. In terms of advances, the Linux desktop develops publicly in an iterative way and grows in all areas daily. As such, if you keep on top of current developments, you rarely see the same kind of huge, ground-shattering, underwear-rattling announcements that you see in the proprietary world.

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What is clear, though, is that the desktop is leaping forward in terms of look and feel, usability and applications. We are at a point where we have a pretty flexible and usable desktop, and developers are now hammering on the details. With six monthly releases for most distributions, it is always interesting to install the last three releases and compare the details. You can really see how it grows.

Ultimately, people care about applications. I remember when I first got into open source in 1998, there were few killer graphical applications for the average desktop user. Computer users are familiar with studio-like environments with comprehensive functionality, and Linux really lacked that. Now, we have a range of these comprehensive applications including, Firefox, Blender, Inkscape, GIMP, F-Spot, Banshee, Xara, Krita, Eclipse and more. It is incredible how quickly these applications have matured, and people are doing real, solid work on the Linux desktop.

In terms of barriers, I would level cross-desktop integration as a barrier. We have two major desktops on Linux [GNOME and KDE], and application developers tend to write for one desktop over the other. I want to see all applications merging into the desktop, and projects such as, Tango and The Portland Project are working toward this. This is partly a psychological problem as well as a technical one, and we see this becoming a real priority.

What is your involvement in Freespire?

Bacon: A while back, Kevin Carmony from Linspire gave me a call to get my thoughts on their planned Freespire distribution. They had been working on it for a while, and Kevin and I have known each other for a few years. Kevin asked me to join the leadership board as a community adviser.

My role on the leadership board is interesting. I am not a Linspire or a Freespire user, and I probably never will be. Despite this, I am always keen on seeing more open source software surfacing, and my role on the board is to advise how the Freespire project should be directed in terms of fostering a real and productive open source community.

You're one of the authors of the upcoming Official Ubuntu Book. Can you give us a hint about what is to come?

Bacon: The Official Ubuntu Book has been hard work but a great project to work on. The book has been written by a team of authors and is available in print and electronically under an open content license. In fact, three chapters from the book are included with Ubuntu 6.06 LTS itself. Just click System -> Help -> Ubuntu Book Excerpt.

I wrote three chapters for the book -- the installation chapter, the introduction to the desktop and a support chapter. For the support chapter, I wanted to engage with the awesome Ubuntu community to gather a diverse range of solutions to problems. So, I got a message posted on The Fridge to encourage people to submit their recipes, and a number are included in the book. Like Ubuntu itself, the official book was a collaborative effort.

I think the book provides a pretty neat introduction to Ubuntu for people who are new to Linux on the desktop. There is also some good coverage of Kubuntu, Ubuntu as a server and the community.

What further developments do you think we will see relating to the future of the Linux desktop?

Bacon: What has been interesting about being part of this community is that the community itself has matured in so many different areas. Open source contributors have not only become better developers but also have a better appreciation of what users want -- usability, performance and many other areas. Part of this maturity has been prioritizing what needs fixing and making it happen.

For our desktop to really hit home, we need to keep hammering on the details in the many different areas. Critically though, applications and integration are where the real action needs to happen. People need a reason to move to open source, and ethics alone simply aren't enough for most people. People want applications that can do what they need to do. And integration, which will pull the threads together into one consistent system, is essential. Fortunately, this is exactly where we are going.

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