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Is 2008 the Year of the Linux Desktop?

No doubt you've heard the prediction before — "this is going to be the year of the Linux desktop." At the risk of being repetitive, though, I'm going to go ahead and say it: 2008 really could be the year of the Linux desktop.

No doubt you’ve heard the prediction before — “this is going to be the year of the Linux desktop.” At the risk of being repetitive, though, I’m going to go ahead and say it: 2008 really could be the year of the Linux desktop.

Yes, yes. I know — we’ve all heard this before. If I recall correctly, 2001 through 2007 have also been” the year of the Linux desktop,” according to various pundits. Hear me out, though, because it seems a few vendors are starting to get a clue about how they can make Linux compelling.

For quite some time now, I’ve been a bit skeptical about the chances of Linux landing on the desktop in any great numbers. Even the Dell deal with Ubuntu earlier this year did little to boost my confidence in desktop Linux, because the PC giant seemed to be responding to Linux desktop demand with much less than full enthusiasm. Dell’s offerings may be great value for Linux users who know they want Linux on a desktop or laptop, but the Ubuntu Dell systems are relegated to a dusty backroom of the Dell site that won’t be visited by many mainstream users.

So, the fact that Dell is offering Linux isn’t the Holy Grail that many Linux users thought it would be. The” if you build it, they will come,” philosophy just isn’t going to get it done for desktop Linux. Nor is technical excellence alone going to propel Linux into the desktop market. Vendors need to offer solutions that play to Linux’s strengths and put a little marketing muscle behind it as well.

Linux isn’t a direct Windows replacement, and users seeking a drop-in replacement for Windows often come away disappointed. Not because Linux is unusable as a desktop, but because it just isn’t Windows. A lot of people, though, don’t really need Windows. They just need a system that handles basic functions and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.

I’m talking about the Asus EEE PC and the Everex Green gPC. Both systems are, by today’s standards, cheap, underpowered, and limited in function. They also play to Linux’s strengths by being cheap, underpowered, and limited in function. Despite limited horsepower, both systems are more than adequate for performing basic desktop functions (email, Web browsing, running OpenOffice.org, etc.) and offer stripped-down interfaces that are less confusing for new users.

They’re also, as of this writing, both sold out. The gPC has been selling through Wal-Mart, and sold out in just a matter of days. The EEE PC was sold through a number of online retailers, and also sold out in just a few days. I’m sure both systems were in limited supply, but there’s clearly pent-up demand.

So we have two desktop categories screaming for an alternative. Cheap PCs that will allow home users to do the basics without having to foot the bill for a Windows-capable PC plus the Windows licensing fees. And portable systems that can be used to complement a users’ existing desktop or laptop. The Asus EEE PC, with its tiny screen and cramped keyboard, isn’t going to be a full desktop system for most users (unless they have really tiny hands and enjoy squinting) but it’s perfect for travel. I wish I’d had a EEE PC on my recent trip to Supercomputing 2007 rather than the 15″ widescreen laptop that is just too bulky for the standard cattle-class airline seat.

Do I think that we’re going to see Linux devices overtake Windows in 2008? Not likely. But I think this is going to be the year you’re going to see a lot of companies offering slimmed-down devices boasting Linux for average users, which just might be the stepping stone for Linux to start encroaching on the full-fledged desktop market as well.

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