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Linux Aims For The Desktop

Linux software has found lots of friends in IT departments and research labs that like its low price, flexibility, and crash-proof reputation. Now tech companies such as Novell, Red Hat, and Sun Microsystems are beginning to market those same virtues on the computer desktop, where Microsoft's Windows has a virtual lock on sales. There's an open window of opportunity, but few customers seem to have noticed the breeze.

Additional charges for upgrades, a monthly march of security patches, and technical changes to the next-generation Longhorn version of Windows have left Microsoft perhaps vulnerable to giving away some of its desktop dominance. "Security issues, pricing concerns, and licensing flexibility are driving companies, as well as individual users, to consider desktop alternatives," Geoffrey Mogilner, an analyst with Decatur Jones Equity Partners, writes in an E-mail.

To capitalize on this, Linux distributor Red Hat this spring came out with a desktop-productivity suite that runs on Linux, and the company plans to update it with more security features next year. Novell, which in the past year has acquired SuSE Linux AG and Linux desktop software maker Ximian Inc., is planning its own PC Linux launch by the end of the year. Sun Microsystems has been selling a suite of open-source desktop software to companies for $100 per user and earlier this year won a contract with Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to sell Linux-based home computers on its E-commerce site. Smaller companies such as Linspire Inc.--the new name Lindows chose after Microsoft sued it--and Turbolinux Inc. also target PC users seeking a Microsoft alternative.

"The biggest challenge is helping people understand that they have a choice on the desktop," says Mike Ferris, a Red Hat marketing manager.

Red Hat and Novell say Linux's heritage in the data center, coupled with the open-source community's development of a "security-enhanced" version of Linux, could give the operating system an edge when it comes to keeping PCs safe from viruses and other maladies that have plagued Windows users. Other vendors, most notably Sun, see Linux as a reliable, Unix-derived operating system that can run everything from the back office to the desktop.

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