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Desktop Linux--What Happened, And What Didn't, In 2006

The State of the Desktop

  • December 26, 2006
  • By Jacqueline Emigh

Mozilla, Adobe, and Novell made some major news in desktop Linux this year, and smaller developers introduced interesting innovations. But on the whole, 2006 was just about as memorable for what didn't happen on the Linux desktop as what did happen, with interoperability issues of various sorts playing big roles on both sides of that stage.

First of all, what didn't happen in 2006? Once again, major OEMs turned away from offering Linux pre-loaded on to laptops. Although some had anticipated that Lenovo might break new ground in this way, the company's announcement at LinuxWorld held some surprises.

Lenovo's T60p is enabled to run Novell's SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise 10). It is receiving full phone support, and all Linux drivers needed are downloadable from Novell's Web site. But the PC is being sold with a blank hard disk. Users who want to run SLED on the desktop must purchase SLED licensing either direct from Novell or from a reseller.

But other things did, in fact, happen this year on the Linux desktop front, although sometimes later in 2006 than originally anticipated.

Near the beginning of the year, for example, Mozilla unveiled a roadmap for Firefox, a "best of breed" browser for Linux, Windows, and Mac OS X environments that also serves as a major alternative to Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE). Mozilla's roadmap called for the final release of 2.0 by early in the third quarter of 2006.

Firefox 2.0 did make it out the door this year, but not until October. At the end of December, Mozilla released the first update to 2.0, featuring fixes for five security flaws that could have left users open to arbitrary code execution and other exploits.

Also in October, Adobe released the long anticipated Linux edition of the multiplatform Flash Player Version 9. According to one Adobe official, several factors contributed to the delay of Flash 9 for Linux, but the most notable one entailed the complexity of porting the Flash player to Linux due to differing sound, video, and type libraries used with various Linux distributions.

Meanwhile, Novell appeared to switch gears on its positioning of SUSE Linux vs. Windows during the course of the year. Just after Novell's annual BrainShare users conference in March, Novell officials explained three SUSE products--Novell Open Workgroup Suite, SUSE Linux 9, and SLED 10--would be aimed at competing with Microsoft's Exchange and Office environments.

Yet in another set of announcements late this fall, Novell stunned the Linux community with the announcement of a multi-pronged deal with Microsoft, supposedly designed for greater interoperability with Windows.

The ultimate impact of the Novell/Microsoft deal on SUSE's desktop products--and on the Linux desktop in general--still remains to be seen.

But with CES (Consumer Electronics Show) 2007 now just around the corner, Microsoft and its recently launched Vista desktop environment will loom particularly large in the software industry at the start of the New Year, anyway.

Also near the end of 2006, however, developers came out with a few new twists on desktop Linux. For instance, developer John T. Haller released the PortableApps Suite, an effort to provide an entire portable environment--ranging from OpenOffice.org to the ClamWin portable antivirus tool--on just a single USB stick.

The PortableApps Suite operates on Windows, but it also does so on Linux via installation of WINE on a Linux host PC.

In a similar vein, French-based Linux distributor Mandriva launched Mandriva Flash, a mobile distribution. On a single USB key, Mandriva Flash contains the Linux Kernel 2.6.17 along with KDE 3.5.4, FireFox 1.5.06, OpenOffice 2.0.3, KMPlayer, Adobe Flash Player, and several other desktop apps and plug-ins.

But much more significant over the long term, of course, were a couple of events late this year which harken possibilities for greater broad-based functionality and interoperability for desktop Linux.

In December, Mozilla rolled out a project known as Tamarin, which will use the scripting engine from Adobe's Flash Player to improve JavaScript functionality in Firefox while bringing together the Flash and broader HTML communities around a common language.

That same month, some of the Linux community's top developers convened in Portland, Oregon at the Open Source Development Labs Desktop Architects meeting.

There, they essentially talked about ways of addressing the needs of Web applications developers and hardware vendors for greater standardization across various Linux environments.

Beyond the DAPI (Desktop Application Programming Interface) standard discussed at the meeting, work is also proceeding on increasing the functionality of the Portland Project xdg-utils, a common set of APIs for KDE, GNOME, and other desktop environments.

So on a number of levels, what happened on the Linux desktop this year--and what didn't happen--are closely intertwined. Other factors are also involved, including a paucity of maintainers for KDE and GNOME, and general industry disruption stemming from the Novell/Microsoft deal. But a lot comes down to interoperability--both among Linux desktops, and with other environments--or the lack thereof.

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