Years ago, the Linux open-source operating system seemed ready to offer a nonproprietary alternative to Microsoft Windows. But "Linux on the desktop" never took off.
Despite the technical merits of the distributions, Linux remained hard to configure and rough around the edges. And what did a user get if she conquered the hurdles? An operating system that looked like Windows, only worse.
Keynoting at the LinuxWorld conference in San Francisco, Bob Sutor, IBM's vice president of open source and standards, suggested Linux developers can improve desktop Linux by taking a page from Apple's playbook.
What desktop Linux needs is "some really good designers," Sutor said. "Stop copying 2001 Windows. That's not where the usability action is."
Toward that end, IBM is making a new stab at selling "Windows-free" PCs to the enterprise. It joined with Canonical/Ubuntu, Novell and Red Hat to offer Linux desktop PCs to businesses, featuring IBM's Lotus Notes software.
Ubuntu has received rave reviews for delivering a much more attractive and slick interface to Linux than previous offerings, but it's IBM's heft that may give the effort the best chance yet of making enterprise inroads.
Sutor also challenged Linux developers to make computers more energy-efficient. The operating system already features server virtualization, load balancing, and better resource management, but "there's got to be more. ... I've got this lingering feeling that open source has not done enough," he said.
Deeper thinking about how to maximize efficiency and cut the cost of operating a data center is needed, Sutor said. "We're doing the obvious things," he said.
While enterprises will look at the cost benefits of running Linux instead of Windows and won't shy away from technical challenges, small and midsize businesses need turnkey solutions, Sutor said. That will mean some combination of open source and proprietary solutions. "We want to work with open source to get a toehold there," Sutor said.
A 'Heck of a Ride'
Linux should also be building industry-specific apps that run on Linux rather than only general-purpose programs. "I'm getting tired of waiting," he said, adding he didn't believe the community would rise to the challenge anytime soon. "Prove me wrong," he challenged.
Finally, Sutor predicted that Linux will be disseminated more widely, not just on x86 PC boxes but also on smartphones, Internet-connected appliances, handhelds and more.
Overall, the past decade has been "a heck of a ride, and we're incredibly impressed," Sutor said. That progress needs to continue to fight against "the enemies of open source," he added, a pointed reference to Microsoft.
"We're very positive about the future of Linux," Sutor said. "We're not going to slack off."