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Desktop Linux is a tall, but not impossible, leap

In this interview, an expert discusses the barriers to enterprise adoption of Linux on the desktop, including migration, management and deployment services. He also discusses the advantages.

Linux on the desktop may the Holy Grail for open source devotees, but experts agree it's a tall order for the enterprise. In this interview, Frederick H. Berenstein, co-founder, chairman and CTO of Xandros Inc., talks about some of the tangible challenges in moving from Windows to Linux on the desktop. Xandros sells desktop software based on Debian Linux 4.0 and a Xandros-enhanced KDE 3.1.4 that includes 1.1. The company will be announcing Xandros Enterprise Manager in January at LinuxWorld in New York, a product it hopes will further nudge companies toward Linux on the desktop -- which Berenstein says would simplify migration and deployment services.

Some IT managers believe that an enterprise desktop migration from Windows to Linux would be very difficult. Is that true?

Berenstein: Every corporation that has looked into this has heard it is going to be very expensive. They hear that wide-area deployment and remote management of computers within a large corporate network will require either hiring specialized Linux IT people or training our current Microsoft IT people to learn what to do when they're using a Linux system.

Still, isn't users' familiarity with Microsoft Office the biggest barrier to enterprise adoption of desktop Linux?

Berenstein: The driving philosophy behind what Xandros has done is to arrange it so that when people look at and use it, they have no idea they're not doing it in Windows.

My philosophy about these things is: Consider that Microsoft and Xandros are both making and selling the Ford Taurus. Only our Ford Taurus has a Mercedes engine in it. You may not realize that right away, because they both look the same. But the time will come when you step on the gas to get on the highway, and you suddenly say, 'Wow! This Ford Taurus drives a lot better than my brother Bob's, and he bought his from Microsoft.'

What would motivate a large enterprise in the United States to move to Linux on the desktop?

Berenstein: A little of everything: cost, productivity, stability and a ground-breaker.

Companies tend to be cautious, and seeing one big company do it would influence other companies that are on the bench. At the Desktop Linux Consortium recently in Tyngsboro, Mass., one speech was titled, "Time is now for Linux on the desktop." The speaker, from IBM, said that once a large, well-known, brand-name company switches over to Linux on the desktop, there will be an explosion of companies migrating over.

Cost is certainly a factor for enterprises. In the last 12 months, computer viruses in Microsoft systems have cost about $30 billion in lost time and lost data. The ability of the Xandros desktop to act as a firewall against viral attacks, as well as the inherent stability of Linux systems in general, makes this a lot less likely to happen on the Linux desktop.

Similarly, about two months ago, Bill Gates said that one of the things that still annoyed him about Windows was the fact that [it] still crashed a couple of times a week. Now, that's on a one-person user basis. When you multiply that by the three or four hundred million Windows users that supposedly exist, you realize that having to shut down your computer and reboot it -- whether it takes a minute, or five minutes, depending on the version of Windows -- is an enormous productivity loss for businesses on a yearly basis.

Then, there's the superior stability of Linux. With the Xandros system, for example, you can set up the applications you use on a day-by-day basis, and you never have to turn the system off. It doesn't use up resources just by being on like Windows does, and the system will run for two or three years without your ever having to do anything. There is no blue screen of death.

Can businesses really use OpenOffice without worrying about file-sharing issues with those who use MS Office?

Berenstein: I think that OpenOffice has improved its ability to import Office documents quite substantially. As a serviceable office suite, it provides the application types and the [GUI] familiarity that anybody who has used MS Office can instantly recognize. There's not much to learn there.

For people who have to import very highly formatted Word documents or spreadsheets, if you own a legitimate copy of Microsoft Office, which presumably you do if you've been using it, you can just install it on the Xandros desktop and have no compatibility programs at all.

How does OpenOffice as a productivity suite stack up against all the applications in MS Office?

Berenstein: I think at this point it stacks up very well. The majority of bells and whistles are there. Of course, [studies have shown that] 95% of the people who use Microsoft Office use about 5% of the features, and the bells and whistles are really for power users.

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