Today, Red Hat Linux released the latest version of its Linux distribution, called Red Hat Linux 8.0. A major improvement over previous versions, Red Hat Linux 8.0 represents the company's first stab at creating a simple and friendly desktop that can rival Windows XP and Mac OS X. And despite Linux complexities that continually creep in under its friendly veneer, Red Hat has done a credible job of taking the UNIX-like OS into new ease-of-use territory. Analysts predict that the desktop improvements will at least temporarily stave off Linux defections to Mac OS X as a result, though it's unlikely that Linux will make major inroads on XP.

"Red Hat Linux 8.0 is the perfect choice for small businesses and enthusiasts looking for a reliable, easy-to-use operating system with the latest productivity applications," says Paul Cormier, the executive vice president of Engineering at Red Hat. "This is a major step forward for users of traditional operating systems who have been looking for an easier-to-use, more versatile open source solution."

Controversially, Red Hat has chosen to obscure differences between the KDE and GNOME desktop environments, competitors which each usually offer unique features not available in the other. But in Red Hat 8.0, the differences between KDE and GNOME are minimal, all the name of usability. Red Hat says that corporate desktop users aren't interest in the desktop debate and simply need to get work done. So Red Hat 8.0 also includes a suite of productivity applications, including OpenOffice.org 1.0, and other important applications and services, such as the Apache 2.0 Web server, simple graphical security and system configuration tools, and new accessibility features.

In my own testing of Red Hat 8.0, the product has proven to be impressive. Setup is quick, simple, and relatively painless, and unlike previous Linux versions, it was able to detect and correctly configure most of my hardware on two different systems. The default Red Hat 8.0 user interface is stunning, with bright colors, smooth fonts, and clean lines. And most impressively, the system was able to handle a number of multimedia tasks with aplomb, another feat most previous Linux versions found impossible. For example, Red Hat 8.0 correctly detected my digital camera and scanner, allowing me to import pictures. This is an act we take for granted in the Windows world, but it's often frustrating on Linux.

Red Hat 8.0 still has problems, of course, and it's not a suitable Windows replacement for most users. However, because it runs on Intel-based hardware, it's a more suitable upgrade than Mac OS X, which usually requires an expensive investment in new hardware. Problems include font issues in applications, like OpenOffice.org, which aren't nearly as nice as the fonts in the base OS, and niggling compatibility issues: I wasn't able to get wireless networking going on either system I tested, for example, though I know it's possible with tweaking. And Red Hat 8.0 doesn't make modem connections easy to find or configure.

All in all, however, Red Hat 8.0 is a stunning achievement, if only because Linux was so frustrating in the past. If you're a tech enthusiast or corporate decision maker looking to replace single-purpose desktops with a simpler and cheaper alternative, than Red Hat 8.0 is worth investigating. You can download Red Hat 8.0 free of charge from the Red Hat Web site or purchase the product in various editions starting at $40.