Desktop Linux at last?

I kicked the Windows habit back in 1997 and have since been using Linux exclusively as my productivity desktop operating system. While you understandably nodded off some years ago while waiting for Linux to conquer the desktop, you probably don't want to snooze much longer.

I kicked the Windows habit back in 1997 and have since been using Linux exclusively as my productivity desktop operating system.

Yes, I know I'm in the minority. But while you understandably nodded off some years ago while waiting for Linux to conquer the desktop, you probably don't want to snooze much longer, or you could wake up to a whole different world. So many significant events are converging so quickly that I'm tempted to concoct a conspiracy theory to explain the coincidence.

It all started when Ximian shipped Evolution 1.0 in December. Evolution is basically an open-source Microsoft Outlook -- more so now that Ximian is offering a Microsoft Exchange connector for Evolution that makes the transition from Outlook to Evolution almost completely painless.

Then K Desktop Environment (KDE) 3.0 shipped on April 3. KDE brought the Linux desktop out of the Dark Ages last year when it exploited the font anti-aliasing features of Qt, Trolltech's user interface tool kit. Most of the changes in KDE 3.0 are under the hood, but you'd definitely notice the translucent menus, usability enhancements to the Konqueror web and file browser, bug fixes galore and much more.

Man does not live by desktop alone, however. Fortunately, we're very close to the first official release of OpenOffice and StarOffice. As you probably know, StarOffice used to be Sun's free productivity suite alternative to Microsoft Office. Thanks to the sluggish economy, it looks like Sun will charge hard cash for StarOffice. I don't have a problem with that decision, personally. But those who do can always download OpenOffice instead. OpenOffice is practically the same suite as StarOffice, but it's free.

Nevertheless, you get a lot with OpenOffice. I've been using it to write this column for the past couple of months now. The release candidate, which shipped April 4, has a truckload of features I'll never use. Although it has crashed a couple of times, I've yet to lose a single word of my work. Best of all, it loads the same day I click on the icon. (Earlier versions of StarOffice and OpenOffice were notoriously slow starters.)

Speaking of slow starters, remember Mozilla? For a while there, Mozilla was the laughingstock of open-source projects. Back in 1998, many of us expected Mozilla to overtake Internet Explorer within a year, perhaps two. But when 2000 came, the Mozilla road map still looked like it charted the territory from here to eternity. Well, at long last, Mozilla 1.0 is nearly ready to go. I'm using Mozilla 0.9.9, but the first release candidate is already circulating.

Mozilla is one of the most misunderstood projects ever undertaken. On the surface, it looks like the same basic browser, email, address book and composer combination we know from the Netscape 4.x series. Others know Mozilla for its HTML rendering engine component, called Gecko, which plugs into applications like the Nautilus file manager and Galeon browser.

Unless you're a Mozilla user, however, you may not know that its user interface is driven by XML files, which means you can make Mozilla look and behave virtually any way you like.

The jury is out as to whether Mozilla's ingenious customisable user interface design will excuse Mozilla from the criticism heaped upon it. If not, it's still one killer browser suite. I've used it almost exclusively ever since developers added the tabbed multiple-document interface to let you browse several sites within a single window frame. Mozilla's email client is also quite an achievement. It's second only to Evolution in terms of power and usability.

If you can't get the Microsoft Office monkey off your back anytime soon, CodeWeavers has a way you can still move to Linux on the desktop. It's called CrossOver Office, and it lets you run Microsoft Office directly on Linux, which saves you the cost of a Windows licence for every desktop.

And that brings me to the imminent release that's most likely to motivate people to abandon Windows for Linux on the desktop: Microsoft Licensing 6.0 (the umbrella for Software Assurance), which is due out in August.

Petreley is a computer consultant and author in California.

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