The best and the worst attributes of Linux as a desktop operating system involve acquiring and maintaining software applications. If Linux is to pile up more desktop adherents, the vendors and communities that back the open-source platform need to work together to accentuate those positives and shrink down the negative aspects of getting and managing software on Linux.
On the positive side, the fact that all the bits that make up a typical Linux distribution are divvied up into software packages makes Linux modular enough to integrate code contributions from many different sources while keeping the software installation and update processes streamlined and under control. As long as you stick to software that's been packaged up for your Linux distribution of choice, there's no better platform for staying in control of what runs on your system.
On the negative side, the desktop market share of Linux is pretty small compared with that of Macintosh or Windows. Making things worse, this slender share is divided up among many different Linux distributions, most of which require their own software package versions. As a result, with many open-source and even more proprietary applications, Linux must often make do with messy and unmanageable software installation methods.
To preserve the competitive advantage that software management can provide for Linux, the platform's stakeholders must pool their existing efforts around packaging open-source software, and step up their outreach to proprietary software vendors.
For instance, Ubuntu is (and has been for a couple years now) my desktop Linux distribution of choice due to its large catalog of packaged and ready-to-install applications. Ubuntu owes a debt to the Debian project on this front, as it has been cranking out software packages on a volunteer basis for years now.
I'd love to see Novell and Red Hat figure out a way to work with the Debian project to reuse the packaging efforts that its members are making to broaden the range of software packages available for easy installation. It would take some work to translate the Debian packaging efforts to work with Novell's and Red Hat's RPM-based distributions, but Novell already has Build Service, a project under way that is capable of building packages for SUSE-, Red Hat- and Ubuntu-based distributions.
It's also important that major Linux distributors make it easier for proprietary software vendors to package their wares for Linux. I know that many in the open-source community have an allergic reaction to proprietary software, but if open platforms such as Linux are to realize their potential, they must host proprietary applications just as well as, and maybe better than, proprietary platforms do.
Again, Novell's OpenSUSE Build Service seems to offer a decent foundation for moving forward. While the OpenSUSE-hosted version of the service is limited to open-source software, Novell makes the service available for download and self-hosting, so proprietary software vendors could use this code to produce packages for multiple distributions, particularly if Canonical, Red Hat and other Linux vendors began pitching in to help streamline the process.
Finally, considering the chicken-and-egg issues that desktop Linux faces regarding the relatively small market opportunity it offers to ISVs, I find it surprising that distributors haven't put more effort into advancing the state of Web application delivery and management on Linux. For instance, I'd like to see more Linux distributors embrace site-specific browsers, such as Mozilla Prism, which can provide isolation for Web applications.
By focusing unique Linux attributes on package-based and security-enhanced software management, the platform's stakeholders can turn one of its most often-cited disadvantages into one of its primary competitive strengths.
eWEEK Labs Executive Editor Jason Brooks can be reached at [email protected]