Why Linux isn't working on business desktops and how we fix it

© Kelv - November 16th 2005

In recent years many news stories have posed the question of whether Linux has become a viable replacement on the business desktop. The company I work for switched from Windows 98 to RedHat 7.3 in 2002, and while it lacked in some areas it was continually improving so it was easy to say 'The next version of program X will have Y and be out soon'.

Well three years have gone by and while the desktop looks much prettier, many of the old problems persist. If Linux ever wants to make it on the desktop it has to gain corporate acceptance. Here are a list of things that would seal the deal.

TNEF e-mail attachment support - Fixed

TNEF, or transport neutral encapsulation format, is a Microsoft proprietary format used in Outlook to wrap file attachments in e-mails. Any other client shows this attachment as winmail.dat. While it is easy enough to tell people to change their mail sending format, it's another thing getting them to do it. The fact is that it doesn't matter that it's not a standard; the majority of the business world uses Outlook so to get a foot in the door we'll have to support TNEF attachments. Consider it a necessary evil. TNEF decoder source code is available thus a Mozilla Thunderbird extension surely isn't that hard to implement for those with the ability.

Update (April 2007) - There is now a Thunderbird extension for TNEF! See LookOut.

PocketPC Synchronization

As sad as it is, Palm PDAs are dropping in popularity while PocketPCs steal the limelight. Sales people on the move need their contacts available to them. Therefore a Thunderbird extension to allow one to synchronize their contacts is a must. It could be done by interfacing to Microsoft's own ActiveSync or IntelliSync but a more realistic option given Microsoft's capacity to move goalposts would be to create a robust extension based around SyncML. One way or another it has to happen.

Calendar and Task support

Key areas for efficient business function are collaboration and coordination of efforts, and many business users live by the calendar, task list and appointment / meeting functions of Outlook.

The Mozilla Calendar / Sunbird project should fill this gap, but when? It's progressing way too slowly and the Mozilla foundation should be making a concerted effort in getting it to a 1.0 release state as soon as possible. In addition Sunbird needs to have a background component that runs even if the user has not started the application, so that task and appointment / meeting notices appear when scheduled.

The fact that Apache needs to be preconfigured for WebDAV support before shared calendars can be published stops many lesser admins, and while it is fine to criticise their lack of ability, there are plenty of them and we're talking about getting the product to the people. Perhaps the creation of a WebDAV enabled server program that only deals with that, through a simple web interface would be a good idea. In addition the shared calendars should be polled on a user definable frequency. Pushing updates to clients may prove problematic.

Simple LDAP based Contact List system for Thunderbird

While it is easy enough to add an LDAP directory at the client end to Thunderbird, it is a royal pain to set up the server side with a read only corporate directory, and one may as well forget trying to set up read/write LDAP address books for individual users e.g. for if they need their contacts while using a webmail client such as Squirrelmail, etc. Either a simple set of wrapper scripts to make the above a reality with OpenLDAP, or even a cut down daemon with a web front end specifically geared for a shared contact list and individual read/write ones.

Seamless GUI Ability for programs to open and save files to Samba shares

Currently GNOME Desktop allows one to drag files back and forward between Samba shares. However unless the share is mounted to a directory files cannot be opened directly from or saved directly to it. Currently to set up SMB shares as mount points the user needs to be root and have the technical ability to spawn a shell, become root, create a directory, mount the share to it and possibly also add it to the system fstab. Easy enough for an admin. Not a chance for a user.

OpenOffice File Save Defaults

Again this is an easy one for a sysadmin but for users who download OpenOffice expecting it to be a drop-in replacement for Microsoft Office it would be a very good idea to have a checkbox to designate whether OpenOffice should save in Word, Excel or Powerpoint format by default. This is much easier for normal users to do than have them go through to Options > Load/Save and change each of the formats manually.

MS Menu mode for OpenOffice

Many users get fussy if they can't find what they want in the same place each time, thus switching a power Excel user to OpenOffice causes much complaining of 'spinning wheels'. While unfair on the more than capable OpenOffice, the differences give them an excuse to demand the IT dept blow another $160 or so on MS Office. The solution, assuming there wasn't a chance of getting sued, would be to have a 'Word menus' mode or 'Excel menus' mode to mimic the menu and option locations as they are in MS Office. It's either that or there needs to be a simple 'How to do {insert common MS office task} in OpenOffice web site set up by the OpenOffice team.

Microsoft Access Snapshot Viewer

As frustrating as it is, many companies send out Access snapshot files rather than something more universal even though the end aim is to see it and possibly print it. To help those on the receiving end, either someone at the Wine project needs to do what is required to make the regular Access Snapshot viewer works solidly in Wine, or a native application needs to be written.

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