Enterprise Unix Roundup — Red Hat's Desktop Epiphany

By Michael Hall (Send Email)
Posted May 6, 2004


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Red Hat's recent foray into the enterprise desktop Linux market leaves us wondering if it was napping or waiting for the right time to hop on the merry-go-round. Novell released the first beta version of Mono. With AppleScript and the script menu, OS X admins' favorite shell scripts are a click away.

We remember our first Red Hat installation fondly. Not only was it easy, but it was also our first Linux installation involving a live X Window session that didn't include cutting off a lock of hair and burning it in a ceremonial bowl.

At that time, people didn't really talk about "Linux on the desktop" because people didn't talk about Linux much at all, except, as one magazine aimed at teen computer nerds put it, as a way to "intimidate your enemies."

So Red Hat could be excused for napping on the desktop issue for a while. After all, it had an easy installer program, it included nice desktop-like apps where available, its user base went around telling people to use LaTeX to write book reports with a straight face, and that was that.

Red Hat napped long enough to miss the rise of the enthusiast-oriented desktop distributions: SUSE and Mandrake made real strides by including a ton of applications and making a lot of things that matter to desktop users work better "out of the box." Worse, the company lost what looked like early control of the GNOME desktop environment when Eazel (now defunct) and Ximian (now a wholly owned subsidiary of Novell) formed in the late '90s to push GNOME in a more polished, end-user direction. Red Hat ceded the desktop, saying it wasn't that interested anyhow ("single user workstation" was the closest anyone at Red Hat ever came to the d-word) and went on to push its Red Hat Network and Enterprise Server line. SUSE and Mandrake thanked Red Hat kindly for leaving them to their loyal user communities, and that was that.

Late last week, Red Hat 9, the last real indication that Red Hat cared at all about desktop users, reached end of life. The indifference among users was resounding. Except, we suppose, when it wasn't, such as when Linux Weekly News, a venerable news source among Linux enthusiasts, published a scathing parody of Red Hat's interactions with the Red-Hat-sponsored Fedora Project community, which seemed to be where some kind of desktop Red Hat would live.

"Hey, all," says a Red Hat sales person in the parody, "if you really want a stable system, don't use fedora project. It will eat your brane [sic]. Buy RHEL instead."

So the divorce between Red Hat and the Linux desktop set seemed pretty well-cemented, and the relationships between Red Hat and the portion of the Linux market interested in a full court press on the desktop haven't gotten any better despite Red Hat's willingness to support Fedora. The closest the company was going to get to that market was its Advanced Workstation offering, which seemed more like a play for support dollars than a serious run at corporate desktops.

Because of this back story, Red Hat's sudden decision to go after a piece of the desktop market after all seems a little, well, weird. On one hand, Sun (which owns StarOffice and sponsors that product's open source offshoot OpenOffice) is out there pushing its Linux-based Java Desktop System hard, in WalMart of all places. On the other hand, premier KDE sponsor SUSE and GNOME expert Ximian are residing under Novell's corporate roof. And for any leftovers in this vanishingly small Linux desktop market, there's always Mandrake, which commands a devoted (if somewhat inexplicable, considering Mandrake's excruciating QA problems in the past) following, Lycoris, and a few others toddling along behind.

But there it is. And the company is suddenly, with the launch of Red Hat Desktop slated for next week, in a market it treated with coy overtures or bland dismissiveness for quite a few years.

So what's Red Hat's angle?

Not surprisingly, the same one it pursues with its enterprise server line: applications and a services mechanism it's refined during the past few years.

The basic product units for Red Hat Desktop will be the Proxy and Satellite Starter Packs — 10- and 50-seat entitlements priced at $2,500 and $13,500, respectively. Customers will also receive a year of support from Red Hat Network, some installation support, and Web forum support for a year.

In addition to its services offerings, Red Hat brings a few choice applications to the table. VMWare, which will allow Linux machines to run Windows applications, is just one example. The company will also include the Citrix ICA client, which allows users to also run Windows applications over the network.

And the bigger picture? Why are the corporate players paying so much attention to the Linux desktop?

In a single word: Longhorn.

When Windows XP rolled out in 2001, it faced no competition from the Linux world on corporate desktops. But much has changed, and there's a sense that the move to Longhorn in a few years will leave Microsoft with a window of vulnerability that wasn't exploitable three years ago, when Linux desktop machines were still treating decent printing like a nifty trick and the initial wave of The Bust had dampened enthusiasm for talk of revolutions in any segment of the IT market.

Which leads us to wonder if Red Hat wasn't so much napping as waiting for the right time to hop on the merry-go-round.


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