Red Hat Linux is now widely deployed on the servers in my data centre. Users have no idea what operating system underlies our Web applications and databases, nor do they care, as long as those tools are highly available.

But the desktop is uncharted territory. Over the past year, I’ve been on a quest to find an operating system that balances ease of use, stability, low cost and high functionality. My experiences were the subject of an article in CIO Magazine -- published by Techworld's parent company, IDG -- that described how I tried to use my enterprise applications with Windows XP, Mac OS X, Red Hat and Fedora. Recently, I’ve spent months running Novell’s SUSE Linux and Canonical Ltd.’s Ubuntu, and I’ll report on those efforts soon.

Based on these experiences, I think I can say when the open-source desktop will become a more widely deployed end-user operating system: when it becomes a product and not a project. That will require the following:

  • The open-source desktop should recognise my video chipset, my wired/wireless networking hardware and all my storage devices without being custom-configured, which would require me to search the Web to learn how others have done the same thing with the same hardware. Searching the Web works, but even for a high-level engineer, a typical laptop requires a lot of trial and error.

  • Wireless support should include the common security protocols: WPA, PEAP, LEAP and EAP-FAST. The wireless client should roam as I change locations, associate with the most optimal access point and work perfectly upon waking from hibernation.

  • USB thumb drives should work seamlessly without having to manually mount a volume.

  • The open-source desktop should include a browser, a robust email client, an office productivity suite, a photo editing tool and a GUI tool for setting my configuration preferences.

    • It must be stable and reliable.
    • Finally, the average user should be able to use it (which rules out all command-line operations).

I’ve not been able to find anything that meets all of those criteria, but things are beginning to change. The newest releases of open-source operating systems and applications are almost good enough. For the first time, I can consider using them as my primary desktop tools. I’ve run into a few issues with my email client, my SSL VPN client and wireless networking that require consultation with a high-level engineer, but day to day, my experience is positive.

I believe that 2008 will be the year when the open-source desktop reaches the point where a non-engineer can install and use it effectively.

This is not about being anti-Microsoft. I oversee thousands of machines that use Microsoft software, and many users need applications that are available only for the Microsoft environment.

It’s not about being anti-Apple. I respect the user experience of Mac OS X, and I wish Steve Jobs would license the operating system to other hardware manufacturers, who could then offer choices that meet other needs, such as a 2 lb. (450g) sub-notebook for road warriors.

What this is about is recognising that the open-source desktop is nearly ready for select desktop users. Dell has begun to offer open-source options for its desktops and laptops. Lenovo is certifying and supporting SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop on the ThinkPad T60p.

Let’s hope 2008 will be the year that the projects end and we can assess all the products based on their suitability for each user.

John D. Halamka is CIO at CareGroup Healthcare System, CIO and associate dean for educational technology at Harvard Medical School, chairman of the New England Health Electronic Data Interchange Network, CIO of the Harvard Clinical Research Institute and a practicing emergency physician. Contact him at [email protected]