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Monday, November 29, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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E-conomy / Paul Andrews
Linux gains as Windows alternative


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For all the woes suffered by Windows PC users, alternatives seldom get discussed. The assumption is that, with up to 95 percent of desktops running Windows, it's better to try to fix what's broke than to change horses altogether.

That attitude may be changing. In its December gift guide, Consumer Reports rated new Intel processors "unspectacular" and touted "59,940 reasons to reconsider Macs," including Apple Computer's increased support ratings at a time when satisfaction with desktop computers has declined dismally.

While Macs are getting more attention, another alternative — Linux — continues to be overlooked in Windows-dissatisfaction discussions. The reason: Reviewers typically don't run Linux boxes.

I've been using Linux (although not on my No. 1 PC) for nearly three years and find it continues to improve. Support is better than ever, and ease of use approaches Windows and the Mac. Moreover, Linux hardly ever crashes and is pretty much immune to viruses, spyware and other plagues.

So I'm a bit surprised at how little Linux has caught on as a desktop system. As much as they whine about Windows, few of my techie friends have even looked at desktop Linux.

So when Xandros, whose Linux I use, released a recent desktop-management server, I was curious about adoption. If businesses begin installing Linux on the desktop, it might serve as seed corn for wider acceptance.

An early Xandros adopter is Kerr Group, a Lancaster, Pa., maker of plastic bottle caps and packaging. Kerr found Xandros' server useful for remotely deploying and managing production-floor PCs. When a problem comes up, a network administrator can fix it via an Internet connection rather than sending a technician.

"We don't have the luxury of taking half a day to fix something," said Troy Backus, Kerr's network administrator, who uses Xandros on his personal laptop. Kerr's plan is to put Xandros on some 150 desktop production-personnel PCs. It's also using Xandros for human-resources personnel and company kiosk PCs carrying internal information.

By extending otherwise obsolete Pentium IIs and IIIs instead of buying new PCs, Kerr has saved nearly $10,000 so far. Although Linux itself is distributed free, Xandros' customized system costs $89 a desktop.

The switchover began in August but has prompted "zero" complaints, said Backus, who says Windows will likely remain the company's choice for sales, finance and front-office personnel. "We live in a multi-solution world," he said.

Kerr's motivation was particularly intriguing. Two years ago the company received a "nastygram" from Microsoft, Backus said, that it was using pirated software. A check showed that Kerr had paid its license fees to a company that had subsequently gone bankrupt without forwarding Kerr's renewals.
 
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The experience left such a bad taste that executives began searching for options it might not otherwise have explored. Microsoft itself could hold the key to Linux adoption. In an article posted on Consultingtimes.com, Linux specialist Tom Adelstein notes: "The Linux desktop could fail if companies continue to (try) pilot programs and conclude that it's less trouble to buy Microsoft."

Adelstein contends that desktop Linux needs better small office/home office networking capability, improved device management and stronger laptop and printing support. It's a short list, he notes, shorter than, say, a couple of years ago.

Linux's biggest opportunity may be in home offices and small businesses, where savings matter and consumer applications aren't that pertinent, said David Allen, author of "Windows to Linux Migration Toolkit" (Syngress, $49.95). It may be a while before Linux catches on with home users because few PCs ship with Linux installed, Allen said.

My guess is we'll know that desktop Linux has crossed the threshold when reviewers and Consumer Reports mention it as an alternative to Windows.

Paul Andrews is a freelance technology writer and co-author of "Gates." He can be reached at pandrews@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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