Open Source on the Desktop: Coming of Age?

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Since open-source software first came onto the technology landscape almost a decade ago, interested parties have by turns grumbled and raved about its potential for success and widespread adoption. Of course, the reality is a little different, and not surprisingly the answer to the question—will open source take over the world?—depends on who you ask.

Aaron Siego, KDE core developer software engineer for Trolltech, said that open source on the desktop is doing big things. “On the server side, open source is used rather universally,” he said. “You’ll see reports coming out in the last year or so that say anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the enterprise or SME market is using it. We’re actually seeing more use in the enterprise on the server side than we are in the SME market, and the reason tends to be that the enterprise market has the skill sets necessary to deploy the typical open-source software stacks.”

Siego said that open-source technology has only been accessible to the average tech person for the past few years. Therefore, the strides are impressive. Now, enough people know about it to create a market pool to support the software at the regional level, and Linux’s popularity doesn’t hurt. “Linux is the fastest-growing operating system right now and has been for a few years,” Siego said.

KDE is one option if you’re looking for an open-source desktop environment. It began with 20 or 30 people, and there are now around 1,000 people contributing to the KDE project. The number of contributors involved has grown in conjunction with the sophistication of the technology. “We’re now creating technologies that are being exported to other platforms,” Siego said. “You know Safari on Mac OS 10, their Web browser? Their Web browser is actually based on, and they continue to work with, our Web technology. It’s now being used by Apple and Nokia. We’re definitely coming of age. We’re a first-class citizen taking part in the shaping of what desktop software looks like.”

Open-source use among the Fortune 500, on platforms and actual applications such as groupware with collaborative calendaring, e-mail and synching with handhelds, is also at work in the marketplace. “We’ve got content creation tools in the form of office suites and the whole bit,” Siego said. “So the breadth of applications that we’re providing now are getting to be right there on par with what you’d expect from a Windows or a Mac OS 10 experience.”

Albion Butters, senior research analyst at Evans Data Corp. sees the open-source glass as half-empty. “This is something we’re looking into as a company more and more,” Butters said. “Specifically, in the desktop, it remains for us a curiosity—very much a future battleground. Over time, we have seen a fairly stable, not dramatic, increase in Linux growth, but that’s not specific to the desktop. In general, we’re not seeing Linux take off as a major platform that developers are targeting. There’s nothing to suggest that it’s going to be the Microsoft killer that people had initially thought.”

Apparently, there is a general sentiment among developers that open source is just not mature enough for the consumer market because users are accustomed to the graphical user interface that Microsoft provides, and the desktop with open source hasn’t yet ascended to that level of sophistication. Support is also a factor. “As much as people like to say that open source is free, what we’re hearing from developers is that it’s not free,” Butters said. “You need to pay for support. Yes, you can get support publicly online through forums and user groups, but generally developers are willing to pay for support for something as important as their OS on the desktop. In addition, there are still frequent updates and releases, and if you’re going through a vendor, it’s not free.”

Butters did concede that emerging markets in Brazil and Germany, for instance, are more likely to show signs of open-source adoption sooner than the United States. He also had good things to say about productivity applications, such as, though there have been some compatibility issues, and when you get to heavy use, you may have problems. “If you need to start running macros or Visual Basic applications with your word-processing program, that’s where starts to run up against a wall,” Butters said. “There are limits. Bottom line, Microsoft, love ’em or hate ’em, has been doing office applications for a long time, and they’ve got some very sophisticated tools in there. Open source on the desktop is still some time away.”

Kellye Whitney,

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