Up Periscope

Linux: Microsoft's real competition?

By Bill Machrone
October 7, 1996

Oh yeah, sure. A freeware operating system knocks off Windows NT? If IBM, with all its might and 11 million OS/2 users, can't get more than a footnote in the record books, what chance does Linux have? Admittedly, not much. Still, the Redmondians could learn a thing or two from the Linux phenomenon.

Considering that in 1991 Linux was something between a hobby and an intellectual exercise for Linus Torvalds, a computer science student in Helsinki, Finland, Linux has made enormous progress. When Torvalds started, he didn't know much about the X86 architecture, but he got up to speed quickly, publishing his code on the Internet as he went. His project captured the imaginations of programmers all over the world, who pitched in with code, drivers, testing and documentation. Today, only about half of the kernel is Torvalds' code, but he still is the guiding light for Linux development. He also crafted the copyright and license agreement that allows free distribution (although packagers can charge for their value added and support).

The key to Linux's development is that Torvalds was utterly straightforward when he showed his code to the world and admitted, "I don't know what I'm doing." As Torvalds said in a recent interview, "No question about it. Without Net access, the project would never have even gotten off the ground." Experts pitched in and created the best Unix for the Intel platform, even while making it less machine-dependent and more portable. "The SCSI drivers, the networking code and the new floating-point emulator code are completely written by others," says Torvalds.

Can you imagine Microsoft, IBM or Sun doing that? Neither can I, although Sun's handling of Java debugging and security issues comes close.

This spirit of cooperation has yielded some surprising benefits for Linux users. Linux became the first server platform with a workable defense for SYN attacks, the hacker's trick of tying up a server by sending a continuous barrage of packets. Linux International (http://www.li.org/) now serves the needs of users and provide information and links to software and support, and it has the backing of big (and small) companies. Linux is rapidly becoming one of the most popular Unix variants, especially on Web servers. It's robust, fast and capable. Recent compatibility enhancements let you simply recompile most Unix programs for Linux.

Caldera has announced an application suite for Linux, and forthcoming Java applications won't care what platform is running under them, so Linux is becoming more feasible for the desktop, too.

Still, there remains the question of Linux's goals. "I hate to admit it," Torvalds says, "but Linux development has never had any real well-defined goals. ... Features have been added when somebody has been interested enough to write the code -- and I've felt the result was worthy."

If you venture into Linux land, you'll have to learn how to pronounce it. Most people say "LINE-ux;" Torvalds pronounces his name "LEEN-oos" and pronounces his baby's name "LEEN-ux." So you can one-up everybody and pronounce it the way he does. It's quite continental.

Bill Machrone is vice president of technology for Ziff-Davis Publishing Co. He can be reached at bill_machrone@zd.com.


Copyright (c) 1996 Ziff-Davis Publishing Company.