For Linux to become a real competitor to Windows on the desktop, Linux distributors must refine their software installation and management systems. There are some loose ends that need to be tied up and some tricky legal knots to unravel.
In this weeks issue, I review the latest Linux distributions from MandrakeSoft and Novells SuSE Linux division. Both applications represent the latest in Linux for the desktop, an area where the open-source operating system is beginning to gain traction.
Application scarcity often has been cited as the No. 1 barrier to wider adoption of Linux on the desktop, but the market—as well as the enterprise perception of Linux—is changing. More applications are becoming available all the time, and our recent tests of OpenOffice.org demonstrated that a Linux-compatible application can meet key enterprise productivity needs. However, setting things up on a Linux desktop system isnt always as easy as it should be.
Most Linux distributions feature powerful software packaging systems that let administrators manage very closely all the code running on their systems. When I fetch security and bug-fix updates on my system, for example, I also have the option of pulling down updates for my word processor and my IM program.
Heres where things get complicated: There are lots of popular Linux distributions, with small differences in the way each is put together—for example, where certain configuration files are stored and which versions of particular libraries are included. These differences make most Linux software packages distribution-specific. And the differences among the packages are the reason Linux distributors are the primary source of software for users. These distributors—not the individual software projects—typically shoulder the task of rolling applications into easily installable and manageable packages. Linux distributors cant afford to package every application under the sun, but they cant afford to skimp, either—particularly since excluding an application from your distribution means making it more difficult for users to obtain that software in a manageable form.
For applications that your distribution does not support or for versions more recent than those shipping for your distribution, you can go to volunteer-run repositories and pull down the packages you need. For example, the Firefox Web browser does not ship with Fedora, but Ive downloaded Firefox RPMs from www.dag.wieers.com/packages.
One way Linux distributors could broaden the range of packages available for their distributions would be to boost support for these volunteer repositories—providing tools that would simplify the package creation process and perhaps some financial support.
Things get a lot more complicated when youre dealing with software that isnt open-source.
Key pieces of Linux software, such as those required to view Flash and Java applets on Web pages, are available for download and installation on individual machines. Wider distribution, however, requires separate license agreements.
MandrakeSoft and SuSE Linux have established such agreements, and their respective distributions ship with Java and Flash working out of the box. However, distributions designed to be completely redistributable, such as Fedora Core and Debian, must ship without these and other key applications because of their licensing requirements.
For certain media types, there are no Linux plug-in options at all—Microsofts Windows Media client and Apples QuickTime client come immediately to mind. Its possible to play Windows Media, QuickTime and other media formats using a Linux video player such as Totem or Mplayer. However, because the libraries that enable this playback were developed without necessary licensing agreements, theyre too hot for any Linux distributor to handle.
The point is, users of Linux-based desktops—especially corporate users of Linux-based desktops—cannot just ignore proprietary software. The way in which desktop Linux distributors integrate this software with their offerings will, in large part, determine the fate of desktop Linux.
Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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