Just when you thought it was over, bar the odd bit of Microsoft licence price gouging, the PC desktop wars may be about to erupt again. We know about Sun's StarOffice and its megaphone marketing of it against MS Office but we also know that getting a SuSE Linux desktop software package and having it run your scanner, your tape drive, your printer and any other peripheral whose operation you take for granted in Microsoft's plug-and-play USB world, is pure fantasy, fit only for the most rabid Linux geek with a wardrobe full of anoraks.
This might be about to change. The Open Systems Development Lab, ODSL, the Linux community's development centre, has set up a 10-person desktop task force to define the way forward to an OSDL-blessed Linux-based desktop. Make no mistake. The whipped remnants of previous desktop wars want to strike back.
Linux vendors are cock-a-hoop with confidence. Linux server revenues grew 62 percent in 2002 while overall server sales fell 8 per cent, according to Gartner Dataquest. It thinks Linux may account 15 per cent of server sales in 2007. OSDL members see Linux booming and the possibility of Microsoft's server O/S sales growth being slowed and then stopped.
Linus Torvalds has joined OSDL from Transmeta and the list of OSDL members includes all significant server hardware vendors and others chafing at the Microsoft licensing bit. Sun joined OSDL in August this year. Sun's previous attempt to take on the Microsoft desktop, its thin client idea, was laughed out of court. IBM is a member, the very same company that let Microsoft loose on the world PC stage in the first place and saw its OS/2 humiliatingly defeated. Novell is now a member; it joined this month. Novell is of course the company whose Netware O/S is in a pretty parlous state in the server OS market. It also failed comprehensively before when it took Microsoft on in full-frontal combat with Word Perfect and other MS Office component competitors. Now Novell is saying it has joined, 'a growing number of OSDL members interested in creating a working group initiative for Linux on the desktop'.
These humiliated suppliers see a way forward, a way to dislodge Microsoft from its desktop heartland and a way to get the FAT lady of Redmond weeping and wailing and gnashing her teeth.
OSDL has an end-user council of some twenty US companies and it has said to OSDL staff, "Behold, go forth and multiply the Linux desktop." These end-user companies don't want their names known by Microsoft, the sadly named Nelson Pratt, OSDL marketing director, avers. But they are serious. Oh yes, indeedy. So the 10-person desktop task force was set up.
And there is some clout behind it. Novell can contribute both the SuSE desktop code and the Ximian desktop code it now owns. Sun can naturally contribute Star Office. IBM will be sure to contribute something too. Its latent desire to get back at Microsoft for defeat after defeat will see to that.
How will such a desktop be represented to customers? Sun is pushing its Star Office as the desktop to be used by people who don't need Redmond's bells and Office whistles. But Red Hat has suggested that customers stay with Microsoft rather than go to an immature Linux.
So the main technology event, surely the main event, has to be creating the Linux equivalent of Microsoft's plug and play environment around USB, about making a Linux desktop a safe bet with easy integration of the tens of millions of existing printers and scanners and NICs and all the other desktop inheritance that plays so very well into Microsoft's hands. If OSDL can combine Linux reliability, anti-virus resistance and cheapness with plug and play reliability then we might have a real battle on our hands and, much more important, a real choice for the business desktop.