The recent collapse of Eazel, the open-source software GUI developer for the Gnome environment, has people claiming that the Linux desktop is dead. I ask, "When was it ever alive?"
Before all you Linux fans who dont know me get into a lather, you should know that Ive been using Unix as a desktop operating system when the big interface choice was between the C shell and the Bourne shell. Over the years, Ive used Open Desktop, Looking Glass and OpenView, and these days Im a KDE fan.
And you know what? None of them has ever made it as a big-time desktop operating environment and none of them ever will. Its not that Unix/Linux is hard to use. With Gnome or KDE, the average user doesnt need to know any more about the system than he would about Windows 98s foundations.
No, the problem isnt the interface. Its also not locking together the file system and the interface. Eazels Nautilus and KDEs Konqueror file manager make playing with files as easy as Windows Explorer does.
The biggest problem is a perceived lack of end-user apps. In particular, Linux on the desktop needs Microsoft Office before it can become mainstream. Listen, I know all about Corel and Sun/StarOffices offerings. Theyre great. But Im not talking technical excellence here, Im talking about what users want. And, like it or lump it, they want Office. They may change their tune with Microsofts XP subscription model. But today, office managers are still saying, "Make my office, Microsoft Office."
These days, thanks to Netraverses Win4Lin 3.0, you can run Windows apps, including Office, on a Linux system. In fact, I wrote this very column using Word 2000 on Red Hat Linux 7.1.
Win4Lin, based on an old DOS under Unix technology called Merge, installs and runs Windows 95/98 under Linux. While it wont run all programs—anything that uses DirecX is out—it does run most business applications.
Ive run every DOS/Windows emulator/installer in the books, and Win4Lin is the best one around. You even can argue that Win4Lin is better than native Windows because Windows app failures no longer mean you need to do a hard reboot.
But, while I think that Win4Lin will be the desktop answer for some people, its not going to make Linux a popular desktop operating system. Win4Lins very nature is that it adds Windows to Linux; it doesnt make Linux a desktop operating system.
Besides, even as nifty as Win4Lin is, like all of the DOS/ Windows under Unix programs, its always at least a step behind Microsofts current technology. The simple truth has been, is and will continue to be that when it comes to desktop operating systems, the commercial winner is Windows. If you want a Unix desktop system thats great and popular, say "hi" to Mac OS X.
Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor at large of Sm@rt Partner.