Novell last week unveiled updates to the Linux graphics subsystem that are aimed at making it a more attractive operating system for desktop users.

The improvements to X over OpenGL (Xgl), the graphics technology that underlies Linux, will render images faster and improve 3D graphics and video for users running Linux-based desktops, said Charlie Mancusi-Ungaro, Novell's director of marketing for Linux and open-source. The new capabilities, already available in source code, arrive before Microsoft's much-ballyhooed Aero graphical user interface in the upcoming Vista operating system.

The updated rendering technology will be offered as an option for Version 10 of Novell's Linux Desktop software, which is due out this summer, Mancusi-Ungaro said. The code will be offered to the open-source community, so he expects the updated Xgl to be incorporated into other Linux flavours, such as Red Hat or Ubuntu.

Xgl is a version of the X Window System developed more than 20 years ago for the Unix operating system. The subsystem supports Linux desktop environments, such as KDE (K Desktop Environment) or GNOME (GNU Object Model Environment).

The new Xgl version can run on most Linux-based PCs with 3D graphics cards purchased in the past 18 months, said Mancusi-Ungaro.

Simply gimmicks?

Jakob Nielsen, a usability expert at Nielsen Norman Group, applauded the transparency and extra desktop features in the enhanced Xgl framework but also noted that some 3-D features are simply gimmicks. These, he said, offer "a great way to show off graphical horsepower but [are] basically useless."

Linux's reputation has suffered for having a less attractive and harder-to-use interface than Apple's Mac OS X or Microsoft's Windows, but the updates could help boost the standing of Linux among PC users, Nielsen said.

Linux's reputation has been well earned and is a natural result of its technical heritage. "Linux has always been able to attract great programming talent but not as many talented usability people," Nielsen said.

He noted that it's often difficult in the freewheeling, open-source culture to veto new features that add marginal utility at the cost of increased complexity. "To have a simple, unified experience that is good for the average user requires someone to say no," he said.