Mark Shuttleworth wants to take the ugly duckling, which is the Linux desktop operating system, and turn it into a beautiful swan.
"Pretty is a feature," he wrote on his Ubuntu-centric blog at www.markshuttleworth.com this week, citing an aesthetically unpleasing look and feel as a major obstacle to widespread enterprise-class adoption.
"If we want the world to embrace free software, we have to make it beautiful," Shuttleworth said. "We have to make it gorgeous. We have to make it easy on the eye. We have to make it take your friend's breath away."
Novell Inc. did as much with the recent release of SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 (SLED10). The company – and a slew of reviews -- touted that release for its inclusion of xgl graphics effects and a slick new GUI interface reminiscent of Mac OS X.
So, that said, how important are looks for those IT administrators trying to get Linux on their corporate desktops?
It's the user experience, stupid
"I agree with Mr. Shuttleworth," said Matthew Mossbarger, the chief operating officer at Synapse Data and Telecom Inc. "The main edge that Macs and Windows machines have had over Linux is the apparent ease-of-use, while Linux has traditionally been for the types who like to work at the command line."
In order for Linux to become viable, users like Mossbarger argue that Red Hat Inc., Novell and Ubuntu must continue to focus on the user experience, including look and feel. "I know many network administrators, employed by universities, small corporations and government entities who feel more comfortable with Windows because it seems easy. Notice the word 'seems,'" Mossbarger said.
Many of these same administrators also have purchasing power for their organizations, which means that Windows is self-perpetuating in these environments. To subvert that tendency, Shuttleworth and certain commercial members of the Linux community have produced intuitive GUIs for configuring modules and underlying operating system features like hardware drivers. A good example of this is the Webmin interface for Linux, Mossbarger said.
Don't believe it's that simple? That beauty is only skin deep? Then look to Windows Vista, said Michael McDaniel, a value-added reseller with Orlando, Fla.-based Configuration Concepts Inc. "Shuttleworth is right on target with 'making Linux pretty.' I see more people everyday commenting on how wonderful Beryl is," he said. "Obviously Microsoft thinks the same thing is true for Windows, as is apparent in Vista."
Beryl is a compositing window manager for the X Window System. It is a fork of Compiz.
Novell, xgl and pretty
Novell appears to have found a way to merge the functionality of Linux with a GUI interface with SLED10, if user reaction and reviews are any indication.
Julio Perez, the senior operating systems programmer for the Miami-Dade Police Department, recently had some hands-on time with SLED10 and called the OS ready for Linux "power users."
"It might be overkill for your typical office user, especially one that has mostly dealt with one desktop at a time a la Microsoft Windows, [but] that's not to say the [Desktop Cube] is a gimmick," Perez said. "Educated power users will probably take advantage of the environment, with the multiple desktops and zooming capabilities, neither one of which is available in Windows XP."
Perez was describing a unique feature found in SLED10 that has multiple virtual desktops placed on a three-dimensional cube. According to Novell, windows can be moved from one side of the cube to another, a user can specify the number of sides, and specific buttons can be set to manipulate and rotate the cube.
For Perez, the allure of SLED10 for enterprise environments went beyond a slick interface. "The other selling point could be the minimum hardware requirements of 128 MB for SLED10 versus 512 MB for the upcoming Windows Vista. True, in either environment, that space could be on the tight side, but when you are doing a massive deployment of desktop machines in a corporate, educational or government entity, the savings add up," he said.
Pretty is as pretty does
With all of the talk about looks, there is a danger that Linux could overplay its hand. Don Parris, the editor-in-chief LXer.com and founder of the Freely Project, which brings Linux into parishes across the U.S., said good software must be functional first.
"Looks alone will not benefit a program that doesn't work as advertised," he said. "If clicking the print widget causes the program to delete the document I just spent four hours writing, then no amount of glitz is going to make me happy."
As an example, Parris recalled his early days with MySQL. Having just left the world of Microsoft Access, he said he was looking for the form designer but discovered in the process that a user has to learn programming to build a "pretty" front-end that users would want to use.
"I might be happy to just use the back-end with some simple SQL scripts in Bash, but most users will want some sort of polished-looking graphical interface," Parris said.
Configuration Concepts' McDaniel said that even as Linux gets a makeover, the community has plenty of other work to do.
"There are lots of areas in Linux that need improvement, as is the case for Windows. And obviously many people are working on making computers easy to use, said McDaniel. "Ease of setup, instant response and intuitively obvious actions required for a desired task should be the primary goal for an operating system, and Ubuntu has certainly shown the world how this can be done. 'Ubuntu simply works' is a true statement."
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