In a move to make the freely distributed Linux operating system a stronger alternative to Microsoft Corp.'s Windows, a group of major Linux distributors announced Friday they have united on a standard set of components for desktop versions of Linux.
The standard created by the Free Standards Group should make it easier for developers to write applications that will work on Linux versions from different distributors.
Linux has a firm foothold as an operating system for servers — it's popular for hosting Web sites, for instance — but has only a few percent of the desktop market.
That's partly because, Linux, created in the early 90s by Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds, is really just the kernel, or core of an operating system. For a Linux computer to perform meaningful tasks, more software needs to be added that does things like presenting a graphical user interface.
Unfortunately, those added software libraries differ among Linux distributors, making it hard to know if an application like a word processor will function on a particular Linux computer.
"One of the big things that's difficult is consistency, and that's Window's biggest strength," said Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Free Standards Group. (MSNBC.com is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)
If you buy a Windows program, you know it will run on a Windows computer, and Linux needs to work the same way, Zemlin said.
"If you really want to become a broadly adopted and used technology, you have to have that degree of standardization," he said.
The FSG, which counts among its members IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., Dell Inc. and Red Hat Inc., has previously certified server versions, or distributions, as conforming to its Linux Standard Base. The latest version of the LSB, 3.1, will be the first one to include a standard for desktop distributions.
The first desktop distribution to be certified will be from Xandros Inc. and will ship on May 1. It will be followed by certified distributions from Novell Inc., Red Hat, the Debian Project, Ubuntu and others.
There are two popular, competing graphical user interfaces for Linux, KDE and GNOME. The LSB doesn't choose between them, but mandates compatibility at a lower level of the system. That makes it possible to develop applications that should run on a system regardless of which user interface is installed, the FSG said.
Michael Jang, author of "Linux Annoyances for Geeks," said the desktop standard is a step in the right direction.
"There's more choice on the Linux desktop than most IT managers can stand, and that's led to problems," he said.
Obstacles remain, however, to widespread Linux adoption. It's still not clear, Jang said, if developers will create Linux versions of the applications people need. For example, tax preparation software, which changes every year, is not available for Linux (though tax preparation Web sites provide an alternative for less complex filings).
Also, most computer manufacturers install Windows by default, and only a few offer to install Linux. Installation by the user is easy, but it's still a step that daunts many, Jang said.