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Open-source vendor: 'Microsoft will try to kill us'

Is it showtime for Linux on the desktop? There are plenty of IT administrators who're ready, particularly in the wake of Microsoft's Licensing 6.0. But there's work to be done before the penguin is ready for its desktop close-up. Ximian Inc. in Boston is pushing for the adoption of the GNOME desktop, an open-source platform, and is developing application productivity software and development tools. Nat Friedman was one of the architects of the GNOME Foundation's proposal and charter. He is also co-founder and vice president of product development at Ximian and a spokesman for the open-source movement. Friedman recently talked to about the state of the open-source desktop.

What are some myths about desktop Linux?
'Linux is a hodgepodge and therefore more expensive.' Linux is not a hodgepodge. We've done a lot of work in the past 18 to 24 months. Our goal is that you have a desktop and not a collage. A desktop is aesthetically harmonious. There is a similar theme -- you can drag and drop, cut and paste. These things are not hard to do, and we've achieved them all. 'Where do you need integration? Between the word processor, e-mail and the browser?' We've solved them. We have an integrated set. We had the release of OpenOffice from Sun, the release of [the Ximian] Evolution 1.0 groupware suite. It's totally integrated. Then you have the Connector [Ximian Connector for Microsoft Exchange], which lets someone with a Linux desktop use an Exchange Server as a first-class citizen. There is Mozilla, a standard Web browser. From the component standpoint, there's been a lot of convergence during the past six months. On the marketing side, Microsoft is driving everyone to dial our number. With Licensing 6.0, Microsoft has their finger on the pain dial, and they can dial up to whatever they want to. Microsoft won't change its licensing plans, though it may yield in some small ways. Microsoft has to maintain insane levels of growth, but the fact is people don't need more functionality from their software. What will it take for Linux to gain ground on the desktop?
There are three critical areas for Linux: functionality, usability and interoperability. At this point, the functionality and general ease-of-use of the Linux desktop experience has reached a base level of sufficiency that it is no longer the bottleneck for corporate adopters. What's missing is perfect interoperability within a Microsoft environment. This means the ability to read and write their document file formats and the ability to speak their network protocols. The idea that 'keeping up' with Microsoft is a problem is a myth. It's not an issue; corporate adopters are conservative enough in their uptake of new releases that we have plenty of time to catch up with any new file formats or protocols that Microsoft might put out. Which vendor has the best chance of competing against Microsoft on the desktop?
We provide key technology components to the solution. The whole solution involves migration support and integration. So it has to be a combination [of the two]. How do you migrate customers to Linux? Other companies are more focused on addressing the Linux consumer desktop. Sun has an existing workstation market. Its business is eroded by Linux, and they are trying to respond to that. How does the Connector work?
It lets people on a Linux desktop natively connect to the Exchange Server. There are cases where you have someone with two desktops. You have an engineer who works on [a] Linux/Unix workstation, but because it's a large company, the engineer is in the minority. For scheduling meetings, you must use an Exchange Server. For the occasional Word or Excel documents, they need a separate licensed and supported Windows machine on their desk. So people are spending thousands just to speak Microsoft protocols. What is the extent of Ximian's relationship with Sun?
We collaborate. We've been building core components of the Sun desktop. We do work on the desktop they will ship with Solaris, and on their upcoming desktop. They want a uniform desktop across other platforms. Is there any opportunity today for additional products that connect to Windows platforms?
There is an opportunity to solve customer problems with regards to interoperability. The biggest area that's still somewhat behind is Office document file formats. Right now, with OpenOffice 1.0, we do a great job of reading and writing most Microsoft documents, but with some PowerPoint presentations there are gaps. These gaps must be filled. Microsoft will be straightforward. They will try to kill us. They won't give us credibility by mentioning us, but the fact is Linux is their number one threat. [IT administrators] can replace their Windows desktops with this, and that's a threat. Microsoft "lock-ins" exist at a lot of levels. They exist at the file format and the protocol levels, at the [user interface] level, and with licensing agreements. Some [lock-ins] are so subtle that no judge would be able to understand this properly. There are a lot of barriers for us to fight. The only way to break the stranglehold is to provide an alternative that is based on open standards which is better.


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