Desktop Linux For All?


Hallelujah! Linux on the desktop has finally arrived!


Or has it been here all along?


This week’s mammothly hyped news that Dell would be shipping PCs with Ubuntu Linux pre-loaded
has been hailed by some as a momentous occasion for the Linux desktop. One
might be tempted to think that no hardware vendor has ever offered Linux
before.


The truth is Desktop Linux has been around for nearly a decade, with various
vendors, including Dell, selling pre-installed Linux on their hardware. The
Linux desktop, be it GNOME or KDE, is, after all, just a package set that is
almost always included in all Linux distributions by default.


So what’s the difference?


Ubuntu has managed to get itself on a tier-one consumer offering from Dell. Though Red Hat, Novell/SUSE and even Mandriva have all had their stints with Dell, none of them has ever really targeted the mainstream consumer desktop in a
similar way.


Certainly over the past 10 years or so there have been efforts to get Linux
into the mainstream consumer desktop through retail channels. The first
Linux distribution that I ever actually paid for in a boxed packaged format
was purchased from a big box retailer.

At one time or another Mandriva
(formerly Mandrake), Red Hat, TurboLinux and others have all been available
on retail store shelves. Most of those efforts faltered for a variety of
reasons, almost always related to money, with neither Linux vendors nor
retailers making enough money from their efforts.


Ubuntu, on the other hand, is known for giving away free CDs of its Linux
distribution to anyone that will take it. During its brief existence, Ubuntu has created a new following of Linux adopters lured with the promise
of ease of use and a strong basis in the community favorite Debian GNU/Linux
distribution.

Ubuntu did not create the Linux desktop. It didn’t even
create the concept of an easy-to-use installer. But Ubuntu has built an aura around it of perfecting the Linux desktop experience and
making it better than others.


Ubuntu is a marketing and PR generating machine, with its strange name, funky distribution names such as Edgy Eft and Feisty Fawn and its outspoken and charismatic leader Mark Shuttleworth. Mr. Shuttleworth has more money than he
knows what to do with. This is the man that blew over $20 million to ride a
Russian rocket to the Space Station.


Shuttleworth will speak with anyone who will listen and is likely one of the
most engaged and quoted Linux leaders in the marketplace today. Contrast
that with Novell/SUSE. You’d be hard pressed to even
name the current leader of their Linux efforts.

Matthew Szulik, president of
Red Hat, is another story. He is quoted and sometimes outspoken, and he will talk to press, though not to everyone and not all the time. In fact the last time that Red Hat’s excellent public relations team was able to connect me directly with Szulik was 2004.

In comparison I’ve spoken with
Shuttleworth at least three times in the last nine months. Szulik doesn’t
engage in mailing-list debates like Shuttleworth and he isn’t seen as a
leader driving Linux desktop adoption.


Red Hat, with its massive following, is arguably still more widely used,
deployed and installed than any other flavor of Linux. The Fedora Linux
distribution has over 3 million live installations and the RHEL enterprise
flavor is the widest deployed enterprise distro.

Certainly, Red Hat, if it so
chose, could have become a consumer play desktop, Instead Red Hat has had
different priorities focusing on the enterprise. Financially speaking, Red
Hat’s strategy has paid rewards to its investors, and it continues to make
more money than any other Linux distribution, almost entirely due to their
enterprise efforts.

Then again Red Hat is also involved in the OLPC (one
laptop per child) effort, which could ultimately means tens of millions of
additional users of Red Hat-inspired Linux in what may well become the largest
desktop Linux deployment.


Yet it is Ubuntu today that is getting the headlines. It is Ubuntu that is
the first consumer-focused Linux that will be available from a mainstream
hardware vendor. It is Ubuntu that has captured and inspired the great Linux
desktop hope of the Linux community.


Whether Dell will pre-load other Linux distros on consumer-facing
hardware remains to be seen. The reality is that end users demanded Ubuntu, and
Dell responded to their demands.


Will this rollout mean that Desktop Linux has finally crossed the chasm into
the mainstream? It all depends on whether Dell and Canonical make money from
the offering. Red Hat chose the enterprise because that’s where they saw the
money.


Time will tell whether Ubuntu will be the first to prove that the consumer
Linux Desktop not only exists but is also a commercially viable venture.


Sean Michael Kerner is senior editor of internetnews.com.

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