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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.