Even as Novell released its SUSE Linux Enterprise 10 desktop this week, rival Red Hat is putting the final touches on a new Linux desktop upgrade for delivery later this year.
Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 Desktop, which is expected to move into beta testing within weeks, offers an improved desktop with enhanced graphics, Open Office 2.0, support for the Oasis file format, a new Access-like database application, improved wireless support and improved compatibility with Microsoft Office, according to a Red Hat document on the new desktop released at the company's recent summit.
RHEL 5 Desktop, the first major upgrade of the corporate desktop since version 4 shipped in January of 2005, is based upon the Fedora 5 code. Fedora 5 was made available on the web in March.
One IBM partner said obstacles to deployment remain but he claimed customers are beginning to grasp that Linux offers them a strong cost saving and tighter security on the desktop.
"The only problems that can arise are where they are running a specific vertical market application that only runs on Windows, and companies will have to understand that they will have to do some cross training when it comes to this solution," said Frank Basanta, director of technology at Systems Solutions, New York, NY. "With regards to the Red Hat Enterprise Linux Desktop 5, I see many opportunities with clients that are looking to get away from the Microsoft desktop and Office."
For instance. Open Office 2.0's support for the Oasis file format OpenDocument, new slide-panel presentation UI, new icons and theme/skin switching capabilities will make the desktop more cpompelling for end users. And support for GNOME 2.16 will support system and desktop notifications and speed up log-in times daramtically, Red Hat claims.
Chris Maresca, principal at the Olliance Group, an open source consulting firm in Palo Alto, Calif., noted that Linux is being used widely in call centers and as a replacement for the green-screen but interoperability problems with Microsoft Office, lack of SMB applications and retraining requirements continues to stymie its growth on the desktop.
Maresca said the key hindrances to Linux success on the desktop which Red Hat and Novell are apparently trying to solve " relate to poor Microsoft Office document conversion, particularly Excel, and "mediocre" connectivity to Exchange.
Red Hat is hoping to close the gap with RHEL 5. The Open Office 2.0X version in its desktop incorporates a new mail merge wizard and improved Microsoft Office compatibility.
In its new corporate desktop, Red Hat is also trying to dazzle new users with improved digital camera integration, support for encrypted USB peripherals and use of Aiglx, or Accelerated Indirect GLX (AIGLX), which is the foundation for GLX-acclerated effects.
Version 5 is also slated to fold in new applications including the Evince document reader, Totem player with support for WMA, WMV and MP3, F-spot digital photo browser and Ekiga, an open source phone-to-PC feature.
Red Hat did not respond to calls for comment on this story. At its annual Red Hat Summit early last month, however, company executives said they expect to released the entire Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 platform into beta testing this month.
The desktop under development also matches the focus of Vista and Novell's Linux Desktop 10 in several ways. It offers improved support for managing and searching files, printing, security, wireless connectivity and power management.
Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 desktop's file manager, for instance, offers integrated search support, template support and performance improvements, according to the Red Hat document. It also integrates directly with instant messaging and e-mail and allows uses to share public directory over the local network.
The software also offers improved wireless support via the inclusion of a default NetworkManager that automatically connects the desktop to known networks. It also will offer an integrated network notification to applications so that applications such as Evolution and Firefox go offline when the network is disconnected, the company documents said. Additionally, RHEL 5 will support WPA/WEP and offer a fully integrated VPN support.
That's not all. Kernel support for ACPI, improved power consumption and full userspace power integration top the list of power mangement improvements in version 5. With userspace integration, for example, applications can detect the power status.
The Linux desktop also offers better printing support via a new system-config-printer system that "talks" IPP directly to other Unix servers or remote printers, and works in a stateless environment, Red Hat says. Moreover, support for Common Unix Printing System 1.2 in the upgraded desktop provides network server defaults and detects SNMP-based network printers and a plug-in system that supports third party drivers. On the security front, RHEL 5 offers Smartcard token and built-in PKI encryption functionality as well as the ability to authenticate at log-in time, authenticate with kerberos. It can also be used with GNOME-based keyring to authenticate to WAPs, VPNs and web sites, Red Hat said.
Some open source services firms such as Optaris and Akibia declined to comment on this story because neither has a Linux desktop practice at this point. But even without all the bells and whistles of Windows, customers that have become more confident running Linux applications on the server are now starting to migrate to the desktop, say some solution providers, including one that is promoting Novell's Linux desktop.
"I think Linux just had to get good enough to be a viable alternative to Microsoft people to seriously consider moving in that direction and with SLED 10.1 Linux is good enough " said Paul Anderson, president of Novacast, Santa Barbara, Calif. " We have a half a dozen customers who were simply waiting for SLED to be released for them to start their migrations. Once we get some of these brave early adopters out of the way and have some solid success stories under our belt then we're going to get serious market shifts. "
Some solution providers say Red and Novell may have an easier time trying to convince large enterprise customers to move to the Linux desktop but he predicts it will be a difficult sell in the SMB market.
"Unfortunately, we don't see any opportunity for it. It all comes down to mass customer acceptability. We're an SMB shop. Even the most inexperienced SMB end-user is going to balk at it when confronted with the unfamiliar look and steep learning curve," said Daniel J. Haurey, principal at Exigent Technologies. " I'm sure that the folks at Red Hat would love to liken it to switching from gas-powered to hybrid, but I think the reality is that it's more like going from driving to work - to walking."