When XP first appeared, Microsoft Office had won the productivity suite wars, Internet Explorer had driven Netscape out of the Web browser market it had pioneered, and Linux, while beginning to gain steam as a server platform, was a desktop platform that only a true geek could love.
Today, OpenOffice.org has grown into a viable competitor to Microsoft Office, with enough clout to have forced Microsoft toward a dramatically more open file format strategy. Firefox has risen from the ashes of Netscape and—along with Opera, Safari and other smaller browser players—is steadily dismantling Internet Explorers market share. And the Linux desktop now boasts two major desktop environment options, GNOME and KDE, that have grown slick enough to deny Microsofts newest client operating system, Windows Vista, anything near the prima facie usability advantage that Windows enjoyed against the circa-2001 Linux desktop. Linux has certainly been a worthy competitor to Windows on the server side, but can Linux really challenge Windows as an enterprise desktop alternative? The definitive answer is, it depends.
The suitability of Linux as a desktop alternative to Windows depends on your applications, your hardware and your attachment to Microsoft applications, formats and protocols.
While Linux can serve very well today as a developer workstation or as a host through which to access Web or terminal server-based applications, Linux cannot yet be considered a drop-in replacement for Microsoft Windows on the mainstream enterprise desktop.
For Linux to make the mainstream enterprise desktop leap, the projects and providers that back the open-source operating system must do more to address the outstanding interoperability issues that stem from working in an environment in which Microsoft has made most of the rules—and has kept the rules close to its vest.
More importantly, however, the projects and vendors that have yoked their futures to Linux must get to work arranging and integrating the various components and capabilities that are available in the open-source world into a form that will enable companies to act on their displeasure with Microsoft. And they must do this without requiring the significant Linux integration resources currently required to roll out a Linux desktop that not only matches the Windows desktop, but that showcases the unique capabilities of the platform.
Windows Without a Phrasebook
One of the most apparent challenges in achieving drop-in status for desktop Linux is that posed by migrating Windows-only applications to Linux. Windows mighty desktop market share means that most desktop applications are written to run on Windows, with support for Linux and other platforms as an afterthought.
Wine, the open-source implementation of the Windows API for Linux and other Unix-based platforms, enables companies to run certain unmodified Windows applications directly on Linux. Wine can work acceptably in some cases (CodeWeavers CrossOver product supports Office 2003 and a handful of other Windows applications), and it can be made to work in others (Google Earth and Picassa for Linux are both powered by Wine). For most Windows applications, however, Wines application support is much too spotty to be relied on as the answer for Windows/Linux application support.
A more reliable route to running Windows software on a Linux desktop involves making the required Windows applications available to Linux clients through an application delivery product such as Terminal Services, although the network dependency inherent in this solution makes it a limited option in many situations.
Running a virtual copy of Windows within a Linux desktop is another alternative, but the complexity, management, hardware overhead and added costs of such a solution limits its attractiveness.
A better solution for working around Windows-only software is choosing Linux-native applications that consume and produce services and files in Microsoft formats and protocols. The trouble here is that key Microsoft formats and protocols are undocumented or otherwise closed off to open-source software.
One prominent example is Microsoft Office, the binary formats for which OpenOffice.org, Gnome Office, KOffice and Google Docs and Spreadsheets, among others, offer support that falls short of 100 percent compatibility.
The Office format filters for these applications handle simple documents rather well but can introduce small formatting errors in the sorts of complex documents that Microsoft Office users often produce.
The best way for companies interested in carving out a compatibility zone for Linux and other non-Windows platforms is to stick to creating formatting-heavy documents with applications that run on multiple platforms, such as OpenOffice.org.
Alternatively, companies that now collaborate on rich documents by shuttling formatting-rich files back and forth can reorient their workflows such that contributors work in a format no more complex than whats required to get their work done. For instance, it makes sense to contribute wording changes in plain text format, and leave desktop publishing tasks to a limited group of collaborators whore running the best software for the task at hand.
This way, your document creation processes will be able to handle contributions from any platform, be it a Web browser kiosk or home PC, a smart phone or a thick Windows Vista/Office 2007 rig.
Fortunately, the cross-application document support issue appears to be growing clearer, as Microsoft has moved to a new, XML-based document format (Office Open XML) in Office 2007 and has made available plug-ins to add OOXML support to previous versions of Office. Novell has added support for Office 2007s new OOXML-based .DOCX format in Novells version of OpenOffice.org, and this functionality will likely eventually make its way into the upstream version of OpenOffice.org.