As never before, corporate customers are turning to Linux software instead of Microsoft Windows to run big business operations.
Now, if only they could get the word processor's basic "cut and paste" feature to work.
At the LinuxWorld trade show here this week, advocates said the next big challenge for the loose-knit "free software" movement is to create a reliable way to run desktop computers and perform mainstream office tasks.
"It works 98 percent of the time. But it's the 2 percent of the time it doesn't that kills you," Jeremy White, a leading developer of Linux applications, told an audience of network administrators.
Even some of its biggest proponents admit that Linux has a long way to go before it can mount a credible alternative to Microsoft Windows, the world's dominant software operating system.
"Linux desktops need a little more work to be consistent," said Jack Messman, chairman and chief executive of Novell Inc. "I don't know how much of that will come about this year."
His 20-year-old network software company, with two acquisitions of high-profile Linux companies in the past year, has become the No. 2 independent supplier of Linux software.
"It's a big pile of lumber with no agreed-upon standards," complained White, president of St. Paul, Minnesota-based software company CodeWeavers.
Linux relies on a network of independent programmers to improve its software. Its users are required to share the computer code they create.
This is a dramatic shift from traditional secretive software development. But it has won a wide and growing fan base among computer programmers, academics, corporate customers and government agencies in developing countries.
The trouble for Linux is that it must move quickly to create a credible alternative to Windows. Analysts say Linux has a window of opportunity before Microsoft's next major operating system is released sometime around 2006. (MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)
Making Microsoft work on Linux
Open Source Development Labs, a corporate-customer-backed consortium that employs Linux inventor Linus Torvalds, said on Tuesday it would lead a drive for standards to make Linux work smoothly on desktop PCs.
Stuart Cohen, chief executive of Beaverton, Oregon-based OSDL, said its Desktop Linux Working Group will be backed by many of the world's biggest computer companies as well as key corporate customers.
The strategy is to nibble away at the edges of the Windows world and target computers that run primarily one or two applications, such as retail check-out terminals, customer call centers and centrally managed office worker terminals.
LinuxWorld is a showcase of where the Linux desktop is headed.
CodeWeavers has created an innovative program called CrossOver Office. Users can run standard Windows programs like Office, Internet Explorer, Lotus Notes and Photoshop on Linux PCs with no special effort and few if any detectable glitches.
Office documents created using Microsoft Windows PCs can be saved and reopened on Linux PCs without suffering the sort of software conflicts that cause programs to crash. This mundane compatibility is a crucial test of Linux's viability as a potential replacement for Windows.
Xandros Inc. of New York recently introduced Version 2 of its Windows-like desktop operating system that combines the stability of Linux with the look-and-feel of Windows. It boasts easy installation in just four clicks, simpler than installing Windows 2000 on a new machine.
Market research company International Data Corp., of Framingham, Massachusetts, estimates that paid shipments of Linux rose to 2.8 percent of desktop operating systems in 2002, up from 1.7 percent two years earlier. But that is still below the approximately 3 percent share of No. 2 ranked Apple Computer Inc., which more than a decade ago gave up trying to compete directly with Microsoft.