Open Source Resolution: Try Harder In 2010!

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If Linux vendors are serious about displacing Windows, they could try harder, says Jason Brooks. How about a New Year’s resolution to fix annoyances?

Late in 2008, I wrote a column saying that the rise of virtualisation and Web-based applications will make it easier than ever to choose an alternative operating system, such as Linux, to run your client machines.

However, if the vendors and projects pushing Linux and its market share-challenged ilk are really serious about gaining ground against Windows, then waiting around for industry trends to carry them to their goal is not going to get it done.

I’m thinking specifically of Novell and Canonical, both of which field direct Windows competitors. Canonical’s Ubuntu project has gone so far as to designate “Microsoft has a majority market share” as bug No. 1 in its issue tracker. Given the ambition of these goals, Novell and Canonical, along with other Linux backers, consistently surprise me with their apparent reluctance to grab hold of opportunities to reduce the application availability barriers to Linux adoption.

Improving Web experience

Take the Web, the great application platform equalizer. Given a solid, up-to-date browser, Web applications will run on nearly any platform, but there are plenty of steps that particular OS makers can take to improve the Web app experience.

For example, both the GNOME and KDE desktop environments offer very handy centralized password management frameworks, in the form of GNOME Keyring and KWallet. However, to my knownledge, no Linux distributor has taken steps to integrate Firefox password management with these frameworks.

In the case of Ubuntu, there’s been a bug filed for this since 2006, but it appears that the project is waiting for Mozilla to take on this integration work. Considering that Mozilla’s primary target platform is Windows, and that years have gone by without this integration going into effect, I’d like to see Canonical, Novell or another of the businesses working to sell us on Linux step up and do the work.

It’s not, after all, an intractable problem – a couple of developers have already created a plug-in that ties Firefox to GNOME Keyring. The extension appears to work well, but given the sensitivity of password information, I would like to see some official backing for this integration.

What about Prism?

Elsewhere on the Web front, there’s Prism, the so-called site-specific browser from Mozilla that allows users to access particular Web applications in their own window and, more importantly, in a process that’s isolated from potential cross site scripting attacks from other browser sessions. Prism is available in packaged form for a handful of Linux flavors, but I haven’t seen any that take advantage of Prism’s full potential.

In particular, I’ve found that Prism, when combined with Google’s Gears extension for Firefox, makes an excellent client, complete with offline support, for Google’s Gmail – or, I imagine, for any other Gears-supporting Web app. However, Gears, as it comes straight from Google, refuses to work with Prism. All that’s needed to get the pair cooperating is a tweak to the Gears manifest file, which could easily be folded into a distribution’s packaging process.

Get rdesktop up to date!

If all key business applications were Web-based, the road for Linux would be smoother, but there are many applications that run only on a Windows machine. For these situations, most Linux desktops tap a project called rdesktop, a Linux-native client for Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Services (formerly known as Terminal Services).

The trouble with rdesktop is that it tends to lag well behind the official, Microsoft-provided RDP client. Right now, rdesktop supports Version 5, and Windows is now at RDP Version 7. Configuring a Windows desktop or server to accept connections from rdesktop involves stepping down the security of the connection.

Given its importance in opening access to Windows applications from Linux, one might expect Linux distributors to be heavily involved in improving rdesktop, but this doesn’t appear to be the case. Novell maintains a project, called Nomad, for providing access to Linux desktop sessions over RDP links – complete with fancy desktop effects – but this sort of work doesn’t help Linux-leaning IT admins looking to keep key Windows applications accessible.

Embrace the proprietary world?

It’s likely that the specttr of supporting proprietary applications, be they Web or Windows-based, is preventing Linux distributors from more aggressively pursuing these application options. However, just as Linux OSes run happily on popular hardware, regardless of its origin, these systems must embrace all manner of software – if not with happiness, then at least with agnosticism.

Executive Editor Jason Brooks can be reached at

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