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Desktop Summit '05: Time to turn Linux enthusiasts into evangelists

A theme of the third annual open source conference is for the user community to tout Linux for its security and reliability, not just lower costs.

DEL MAR, Calif. -- Count Lester Cooper among the converted. Since buying a PC with a commercial Linux operating system three years ago, the self-employed investment manager has never had a computer crash. Nor since adopting open-source firewall and antivirus protection has it been breached or fallen victim to a virus.

"Viruses have tried to come in but never have infected my computer," bragged the Carlsbad, Calif., man, who predicts open source tools' eventual domination. "I really think they're going to outdo the closed programs because so many people are working on them. That actually makes me feel very good about what I use."

Touting the security and reliability -- and not just cost-savings -- of Linux and open source tools is a common theme at this year's Desktop Summit in Del Mar. Many of Thursday's speakers implored the 600 attendees, like Cooper, to take advantage of growing consumer interest and companies' software upgrade schedules to push Linux at the laptop level.

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"We really want to bring Linux to the mainstream. It's been a geek novelty for a long time now," said Linspire Inc. CEO Michael Robertson, who believes his San Diego company's feature-rich OS -- "the world's easiest desktop Linux" -- might be the one to do it. Formerly known as Lindows, Linspire 5.0 comes with security enhancements like a firewall and automatic antivirus protection, as well as fun productivity drainers like the game Solitaire to put it on par with Windows XP.

But along with widespread adoption of any platform comes a broader user base including the less technically savvy, who are more apt to misconfigure systems or leave security holes unpatched. Meantime, such popularity would make Linux an attractive target for malware writers.

Kevin Ollivier, a Las Vegas-based software developer who works for Tulane University, understands such a slippery slope. But, the Summit attendee argued, unlike other proprietary products, Linux developers lock down systems by turning features off by default, and holes are patched sooner because the code is in plain view. "As soon as someone sees a flaw, a thousand people will check it out and somebody will have the time to act on it."

Roughly 40% of this year's attendees support or have deployed Linux at their companies and another 40% expressed strong interest, according to Richard Finlayson, director of software strategies and alliances at Sunnyvale, Calif.-based microprocessor AMD. Ted Haeger, the director of marketing for desktop and collaboration at Novell, which recently bought SuSE to boost its Linux offerings, said the platform now accounts for 3% of all enterprise workstations and appears ready to eclipse Apple's Macintosh.

While most speakers pressed for audience members to push Linux at private companies, Dutch journalist Brenno de Winter reminded everyone not forget the public sector. He urged open-source advocates to speak out at local government meetings, suggesting cities consider Linux over Windows. He also warned that most elected officials need to be educated in basic IT terms and concepts, as well as on the differences between Windows and Linux systems. "There's no better evidence than talking about security, reliability and viruses," he said. With Microsoft devotees in particular, he added, "This is the way to go."

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