Report from the first Desktop Linux Conference

by Andy Oram

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It was a lucky stroke of fate that brought the first Desktop Linux
Conference on November 10, a time of some distress among Linux
proponents. In the past two months we have had to assimilate Red Hat's
abrupt change in licensing, which reduced its consumer presence
(although, as VP Brian Stevens pointed out at the conference, Red Hat
Professional Workstation is still available, albeit at a higher price
than earlier offerings). Rubbing in the message even further was the
a week ago by Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik that Linux was not ready for
ordinary home users: "I would say that for the consumer market place,
Windows probably continues to be the right product line."


purchase of SuSE by Novell

offered a bounce in the news, but we still don't know what difference
that will make.

In this context, a spanking new and dynamic Desktop Linux Conference
from the
Desktop Linux Consortium
can remind us that Linux adoption is on a strong upward trend. The
central lesson did not depart much, actually, from Szulik's
assessment. Nat Friedman, cofounder of
pointed out in his keynote that it's not a question of "when will
Linux be ready for the desktop," as if some key feature will fall into
place and cause a "big bang" that leads to instant acceptance.
Instead, Linux will advance steadily in the desktop space, as it has
in the server space. Sam Docknevich, Linux and Grid Services Executive
at IBM, pointed out that Linux penetration on the desktop is actually
proceeding faster than its penetration among servers. For the past
couple years, desktop adoption has been growing at 44% a year.

Friedman, Docknevich, and others gave similar messages: that one
doesn't get far by indiscriminately pushing Linux everywhere, but must
determine what environments and users are ready for Linux. The
speakers even charted a similar roadmap for the stages of adoption.

First is the kiosk: point-of-sale terminals and other systems with
extremely limited applications, where programmer control over user
activity is fairly complete. Linux is already making big inroads in
that market.

Second are technical users, who often use Sun or SGI workstations and
are now moving to Linux. Learning Linux is easy for them, and many
applications are already ported.

Successive trends are barely starting, but will come in time. And
probably sooner than the five years or so that many analysts predict.

The next stage will bring Linux to workers who need computers, but for
fairly basic operations. Their usage does not go beyond email, Web
browsing, moderate use of word processors or other office
applications, and perhaps one or two custom applications that a
company can port to Linux. These people can often use Linux with
Evolution, OpenOffice, and Mozilla without even realizing that they
aren't on Windows. A thin client solution such as
Linux Terminal Server Project
will make migration particularly easy, and maximize financial savings.

Last, and most difficult to conquer, are the advanced knowledge
workers. These people often carry out sophisticated tasks with
specialized features of proprietary software that aren't reproduced in
free software equivalents. The path for them may involve an emulator
such as
(based on
both of which were introduced a full session of about 35
attendees. Jeremy White of CodeWeavers explained that he considers
Wine "a bridge to a Linux desktop."

Other presentations at the conference covered other projects that are
currently driving Linux adoption or will be potentially significant in
the future: LTSP,

But the conference atmosphere did not always consist of holding hands
and singing hosannah. Significant disagreements were aired. Several
participants criticized Red Hat's new licensing policies and suggested
either that they violated the spirit of the free software movement
(because of restrictions placed on customers) or were simply part of
an outdated and doomed pricing strategy. "Selling Linux by the seat,"
said Desktop Linux Consortium spokesperson
Bruce Perens
in his keynote, "may not be healthy for Linux." And Nat Friedman
declared, "Per-seat desktop licensing is dead." He suggested we
"fundamentally alter the economics" through thin client solutions such
as LTSP.

Posing a direct challenge to the Red Hat strategy, Perens announced a
"user-driven Linux" initiative. Here, major customers would pool their
money and put it into creating an alternative enterprise Linux that
would be distributed freely, instead of paying licenses. While he
acknowledged that Red Hat's opening up of Fedora met some of the same
needs as the GNU project's open
project, he said Fedora "just feels too much like putting money in Red
Hat's pocket. I'd rather have it go to the users."

Brian Stevens of Red Hat, when the time came for his session, got to
present an explanation and justification of Red Hat's current
strategy, as well as showing how their development process supports a
reliable and easy-to-maintain set of products.

He cited the Open Source Architecture
by Red Hat in September 2003, which built on an announcement made a
month earlier at LinuxWorld and reported in my
weblog from there.

Red Hat is moving "up the stack," including applications and other
components, "building full enterprise solutions." Examples of the
customer concerns Red Hat has to address include how to do single
sign-on, and making sure the operating system has the resources needed
to run a high-availability database cluster. Perhaps predictably, Red
Hat is sounding less like a "Linux company" and more like a "solutions
company," where it will compete with a different set of vendors.

Stevens also pointed out that the move from high-end Unix systems to
Linux on cheap Intel chips has caused the number of systems to
proliferate. Customers tend to run a single server on each
system. And the use of many systems creates a management problem.

Perens presented a talk on the SCO situation (which I couldn't get to)
and Tom Adelstein, of
Project Leopard
and the
Open Government Interoperabilty Project,
described an initiative to define standards for critical government
software and disseminate open source solutions. Right now, governments
everywhere are struggling with old software that vendors no longer
support. Their systems are out of sync with their own standards, and
therefore unable to communicate with the systems in other agencies to
carry out critical tasks such as exchanging criminal records. With
Project Leopard, not only will governments save millions of dollars,
but for the first time they will have software that actually
interoperates and conforms to the standards they wrote.

All in all, the Desktop Linux Conference is a big step forward. Thanks
go to the Desktop Linux Consortium, who announced that they will soon
be offering membership to individuals, and to Boston University for
providing an excellent facility and support. I will post a follow-up
analysis in a couple days.

What's happening with Linux on the desktop?


2003-11-11 16:45:56
Debian is not a GNU project.