Project Mad Hatters Premise isnt Far-fetched

eLABorations: Sun's initiative, other developments show desktop Linux is ready to go head to head with Windows

This morning at the SunNetwork 2002 conference in San Francisco, Sun Microsystems announced its intentions to begin marketing 32-bit, Linux-based enterprise desktop computers, beginning in early 2003.

According to Sun boss Scott McNealy, the firm believes that this effort, named Project Mad Hatter, can boost innovation and value in enterprise desktops, and can do so at half the cost of comparable Windows-based systems.

Didnt desktop Linux die back when Eazel—the firm that was supposed to bring sweetness and light to the Linux desktop in the form of a Mac-ish interface—slipped into the ether along with its Nautilus graphical shell?

Has desktop Linux, which as of yet hasnt made much of a name for itself outside of the server room, really progressed far enough to go head to head with Windows?

I think that it has, and for you close readers who havent already started writing me hate mail about my dead Nautilus remark, Ill tell you why (more on Nautilus in a bit).

First, while the desktop-related elements of Linux have been steadily scoring design and functionality gains for the past few years, the reticence of prime-time computing players to embrace Linux as a desktop OS has cast a dark cloud over its horizon.

And it hasnt helped that Red Hat, perhaps the biggest name in Linux next to Torvalds, kept insisting that Linux wasnt ready for the desktop, and that Red Hat wasnt interested in entering the desktop space.

However, Red Hat has recently changed its tune, thanks in large part, I believe, to the impressive 1.0 releases of the open source Mozilla Web browser and productivity suite, and the latest, now-compelling KDE and GNOME desktop environments.

Red Hats desktop Linux presence begins with Red Hat 8.0, which may ship as soon as this month. If youd rather not wait, theres a second beta of 8.0, called Null, which you can take for a spin right now.

Ive been running Null on my desktop at home for a week or so now, and Ive been very pleased with it. Red Hat brings to the desktop Linux table the same sort of fit and finish it provides on the server side—things like unified themes, application sets, and system utilities that function across GNOME and KDE.

I think Linux is ready to make it on the desktop, and that with Red Hat jumping into the mix, more big players will take their chance to test the waters. It wouldnt surprise me if, a couple of years from now, Dell ships its own complete, Linux-based system, with no OS partners to worry about at all.

The benefit for Dell, Sun or anyone else out to grab a piece of Linux on the desktop is only partly price—if it were price alone, Microsoft would be able to hold on, perhaps indefinitely.

The biggest benefits of Linux and open-source—software flexibility and openness—are what bring me back to the Nautilus graphical shell: When Eazel went belly-up, its code didnt die with it. Nautilus lives on in the GNOME desktop that Sun showed off this morning in its Mad Hatter demo, and in every copy of GNOME that leaves an FTP server.

This sort of freedom is what enables Apple to ship its BSD-based Mac OS X with such good printer support (thanks to the open-source CUPS) and such simple Windows inter-networking (thanks to the open-source Samba). Its the sort of freedom thats got Sun thinking it can take a new crack at "The Network is The Computer."

I dont know just what the next year will bring, but it should be interesting.p> Send your desktop Linux predictions to