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Next Stop: Desktop

The past two years have been good ones for Free Software, the developers who create it, and the users who rely on it. The explosive growth of installed Linux-based systems continues unabated. Key Free Software server technologies, such as Apache and Samba, are accepted (and are often the leading) mission critical components in business environments. Governments and institutions worldwide, especially in developing nations, are looking at Linux-based solutions to minimize their costs of deployment and maintenance. Perhaps most heartening, we can now point to successful business models built on Free Software development, service, and support, with Red Hat being only the most notable.

Trenches Art

The past two years have been good ones for Free Software, the developers who create it, and the users who rely on it. The explosive growth of installed Linux-based systems continues unabated. Key Free Software server technologies, such as Apache and Samba, are accepted (and are often the leading) mission critical components in business environments. Governments and institutions worldwide, especially in developing nations, are looking at Linux-based solutions to minimize their costs of deployment and maintenance. Perhaps most heartening, we can now point to successful business models built on Free Software development, service, and support, with Red Hat being only the most notable.

That said, I’m firmly convinced that the next 24 months will be even brighter. Although Free Software has already proven itself on the server side, it is just now starting to be considered as an alternative to Windows on the desktop. I strongly believe that Free Software on the desktop, and in particular the GNOME platform, is a viable alternative to proprietary software.

This will come to pass not only because of the inherent dynamism of the Free Software development model. These outcomes will occur because desktop software for Linux and Unix systems is becoming dramatically easier to use while offering the productivity applications required for, and compatible with, corporate use.

It might be obvious to everyone, but I want to point out that as more people use Free Software, more people will develop applications; and the more applications we have, the more compelling our system becomes. Of course, our objective should be to bring more people into the realm of Linux and GNU. To accomplish this objective, Linux and Unix-based systems must first become easier to understand and use.

Use It or Lose It: Improving Usability

One approach to enhancing usability is the GNOME project (there are, of course, others, such as KDE). From its inception, the GNOME project sought to provide a very solid foundation for application development, a comprehensive set of tools for software developers to use, and most important for this discussion, an end-user desktop environment. What started as a desktop for Unix has evolved into something much more.

With the release of GNOME 1.2 last year, the desktop design showed great advancement in reflecting how people interact with computers — with applications that better understand the way people think (rather than having people have to adapt to the way the software works).

However, despite these continued improvements, we need the help of all Free Software programmers to make the desktop experience even better. If you are interested in contributing to this, please check out the GNOME TODO system and the documentation on becoming a GNOME contributor at: http://www.gnome.org/todo/.

Everything You Need: A Complete Productivity Solution

Key to both end-user and corporate adoption of Free Software on the desktop will be the availability of a robust set of core productivity applications, including a Web browser, e-mail client, and office suite. These must be not only feature-rich, but also must provide the file format compatibility and network support needed to interoperate with corporate standards.

Happily, progress is being made on all fronts. For example, the integration of the Mozilla Web browser on the desktop is coming along nicely. As Mozilla continues to improve in terms of speed, reliability, and size, we will see developers using it in more places.

Another major step towards making the deployment of Free Software simpler is the release later this year of StarOffice from Sun under the GPL as OpenOffice. This will provide a Free Software suite of powerful, integrated, MS Office-compatible applications. Note that Sun is not only continuing to enhance OpenOffice, but is also working on accessibility features for the GNOME platform.

Whether users choose StarOffice/ OpenOffice applications or the included GNOME applications (such as AbiWord and Gnumeric) for lower-end hardware configurations, they’ll have a pretty complete set of tools for migrating away from Windows.

The remaining piece of the desktop puzzle is the incorporation of a full-fledged mail client and personal information manager. Towards that end, two years ago I launched the GNOME Mailer project, which eventually matured into the Evolution project now underway at Ximian.

Critical Missions: The Corporate Desktop

The next 24 months will see the significant expansion of Free Software such as GNOME onto corporate desktops. The growing grassroots adoption of Linux desktops by users will lead first to departmental and then to central IT support. What is true in R&D departments now is spreading to vertical applications, including customer management, retail displays, and finance.

This is being driven by more than the lower cost of deployment that Free Software solutions provide. First, the broad platform support of GNOME means that companies will be able to implement a common desktop experience regardless of which Linux distro or Unix variant they run. This is important for allowing companies to maintain legacy Unix boxes as they integrate new Intel-based Linux CPUs.

Second, software management approaches such as Red Carpet (Ximian’s software management application) will allow users, workgroups, and departments to reap the benefits of the continuous improvement of Free Software applications without the current pitfalls inherent in updating dozens (or hundreds) of machines. Unlike the frequent Windows upgrade cycles, tools such as Red Carpet mean that enterprise customers, and the ISVs serving them, will have an upgrade process that is secure and cost-effective.

A Foundation to Build On

Linux and Unix-based systems will also continue to improve in terms of developer tools and system and application extensibility.

We must continue to improve the platform in terms of both end-user experience and underlying technology. The Bonobo Component architecture was finally released as part of GNOME 1.4, an important step for component technology in Unix. Looking ahead, the team is currently working on GNOME 2. This new version will not only include the much anticipated developer platform upgrade, but will also use components in a more pervasive way.

Other examples of improving developer tools include GTK+ 2.0, which will be released together with the various accessibility features contributed by Sun and the underlying Pango platform. A new and updated lightweight HTML engine (fully 4.01 compliant, with support for CSS1 and CSS2, as well as a DOM) has been developed by Codefactory. The pixbuf imaging library has been integrated into the core GTK+. A suite of SOAP tools will also be available for people interested in integrating SOAP support into their GNOME applications or writing standalone SOAP servers.

Free Software: We Are the World

One of the most interesting aspects of the user base expansion for Free Software is its momentum internationally, especially in the developing world. This is being driven by Free Software’s proven lower cost of deployment combined with improvements in localization and language support.

Developing countries looking at closing the digital divide will look into using Free Software as a way of lowering the deployment costs of their various nation-wide initiatives. For example, Mexico City’s government has a two-year plan to migrate all of their systems to Free Software. Free Software systems are also planned in the Venezuelan banking system. And this movement is spreading through South America and Europe.

Global adoption will be aided by enhancements in localization and onscreen local language display. New language support is a major thrust of the GNOME 2 project. GNOME 2 will feature the Pango technology for text handling and layout on the screen. This will allow GNOME to support Unicode character sets, and by doing so, fully support all major languages in use today (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, and others).

Ask Not What the Code Can Do for You

All in all, there is a great future for the Free Software community on the desktop, but we need your help. We need you to contribute; even the smallest contribution to the project can make a difference. If you fix a little bug, improve the documentation, or provide a good bug report, your contribution could impact the lives of millions. And those millions of people will have a desktop that is a bit better thanks to you. You might have a huge impact on the lives of people around the globe.



Miguel de Icaza is co-founder and CTO of Ximian Inc., a developer of desktop environments for Linux and Unix.

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