On the 20th of April 1997 the Sunday Times carried a piece by David Hewson entitled Linux, the PC program from hell This piece, incidentally the only thing that the Sunday Times has ever uttered about Linux in the last two years (search their Web Site), was a savage attack on the decision to provide Red Hat Linux 4.1 on the Cover CD of the May issue of Personal Computer World [ ] magazine.

As I was the one who organised the whole thing I telephoned the Sunday Times to request a right to reply. Mr Roger Eglin of the ST asked me to fax in a reply and I quickly replied with the following, the large part of which was text that already formed part of the linuxtxt/linux.txt file on the CD itself.

My original reply to the Sunday Times

25th April 1997
Mr. Roger Eglin,
The Sunday Times
PO Box 496
London E1 9XW

Dear Sir;

David Hewson's "Sounding Off" piece in the 20th April edition entitled 'Linux, the PC program from hell' [ ] has certainly caused some waves! I have a file of printed out email messages over half an inch thick collected over the last few days. Enraged Linux and Unix users from all over the world have criticized Mr Hewson's article for a number of reasons, many of these Mr Hewson and The Sunday Times will have doubtless received by email so I will not repeat things here.

As Linux SIG organiser of the Uk Unix User Group I am the one who encouraged PCW to give up so much space on their cover disk to letting 160,000 people find out more about Linux and try it if they wish. Mr Hewson asserts that installing Linux is as simple (and dangerous for the clue-less) as clicking on an Install icon. he obviously never actually tried it. You can get to read copious documentation by the click of an icon but installing Linux is slightly more involved and requires that the prospective user have read some documentation as either a boot disk needs to be prepared or a batch file run from DOS real mode only. The batch file is harmless if click on from within Windows so it is very hard to see where Mr Hewson gets his idea that systems can be destroyed without thinking.

The Linux community now numbers anything between 4 and 16 million active users, worldwide. People have very good reasons for choosing to use Linux, As others will have attacked Mr Hewson's Article directly the most constructive thing that I can do is explain things by drawing attention to a piece I wrote as part of the documentation for the cover disk entitled 'The Battle for the Desktop'. The Sunday Times is welcome to publish it to shed more light on why millions of people are just not happy with a monopolistic software industry.

The Battle for the Desktop

By Martin Houston


As computers get faster the way that we are using them is changing. Systems of a power level that, 10 years ago, was found only in big and expensive departmental machines is now commonplace in desktop and even portable equipment.

The onward rush of faster and cheaper PC equipment has through the 90s lead to a move away from the traditional centralised systems to great tangled webs of semi-autonomous PC based systems.

The explosive growth in PCs, with the relentless logic of economies of scale and desire to standardise has also given the opportunity for a single company, Microsoft, to virtually dominate that industry with widely used but still totally proprietary technology which many believe has been forged to benefit the monopoly holder rather than the user community.

It is now a widely accepted fact that PCs, because they are so complex, have high support costs, much higher over their useful lifetime than original equipment cost.

The other big problem with PCs is that they just keep getting faster. This does not seem like a problem if you are about to purchase but just consider that next years leading software applications will be written to show off their best features on next years hardware. Your system either has to be stuck in a time­warp with the application versions which were state of the art when it was purchased, or struggle running newer applications.

"Software bloat" is sometimes portrayed as a great conspiracy between hardware and software manufacturers. Hardware manufacturers want you to buy new hardware, even though what you already have may have several years of useful life left in it and software manufacturers want your upgrade business so they invent new ways of using up processing power and disk space. The truth is not this stark. Simply computers, fast as they are, will always open up to new previously impossibly intensive computations that in turn open up a new mass market desire to reap the benefits of them.

As an example 10 years ago 3D perspective games were very primitive ­ limited to wandering around a wire-frame maze. Now we have complete gory combat!

Breaking the cycle

Linux is an industry phenomenon that has been driven almost entirely by users rather than hardware or software companies. The purpose of Linux is to bring the powerful philosophy that has made UNIX the dominant OS on multi­user machines to bear in tackling the PC problem. Linux gets its name from Linus Torvalds, an exceptionally bright student at the University of Helsinki in Finland. As a project Linus wrote a rudimentary Unix­like OS that was small and specially optimized for the Intel 386 processor. This in itself was good news as it meant that usefully fast Linux systems could be afforded by anyone who wanted to take an interest. The really significant action that Linus took however was to publish the sources for Linux on the Internet and invite other interested parties to take part. This created what can only be described as an inferno of activity. Several years of pent up frustration at the onward march of increasing powerful PCs shamefully crippled by pathetic Operating Systems was released in a frenzy of development work. The seeds of Linux's eventual success were firmly planted. Richard Stallmans Free Software Foundation had already been active for several years and had built up a very useful collection of free (and superior) versions of the standard UNIX system programs such as C compilers, shells and editors. The FSF had its own free kernel project called "The Hurd" but it just wasn't attracting the interests of enough developers to be going anywhere particularly fast.

Berkeley University were in the process of freeing up BSD UNIX so that it could be targeted at the PC marketplace but was beset by two problems, firstly that BSD was simply too big for most people to run and secondly waters were muddied by legal disputes over ownership of some of the code which put many people off making time investments in something that could, one day, be taken away from them.

Linux was small, efficient, the software equivalent of a green field site. This is what attracted hundreds if not thousands of dedicated developers who put time and effort into making Linux work. Partly this was out of a sense of challenge but with a real pay­off in that at the end of it all the users had an OS that they could fix if it did not work for them.

Freedom is the key

The main reason why UNIX never made much impression on PCs in the past was that of cost. In the mid 80s 386 based PCs made great UNIX systems and companies like SCO and Interactive made some headway in the market. However the typical price of a complete suite of UNIX software, even for a 386, was in the region of 1,000 pounds. At this price people who knew in the back of their minds that UNIX would be a wiser choice went instead for the cheap but unsatisfactory solution of DOS/Windows. Why was UNIX so expensive? Although much of the original work on UNIX was done by Universities and given back to AT&T free of charge the 'commercial exploitation' of UNIX led to a suffocating liability of per­copy royalty payments; to AT&T, to Novell, and surprisingly even to Microsoft. Microsoft got involved in the commercial UNIX market place early on with its own deliberately incompatible variant called XENIX. Microsoft's now legendary marketing skill meant that XENIX was the dominant UNIX system on 286 and then 386 PCs and as a direct result for several years was the most common form of UNIX, even though the system calls had been changed to become proprietary, and so became the most popular target platform for UNIX application vendors (are we going to be stupid enough to let history repeat itself with Visual J++ Vs Java I wonder?).

The UNIX community has had to pay dear for 'XENIX Compatibility' when the UNIX System V.4 came out Bill Gates was added to the list of royalty recipients.

The situation with UNIX in that some contributors received royalties and others did not was unfair. The situation that much of the OS source code was secret has led to situations where users are virtually held to ransom over software maintenance. In contrast in the Linux system no royalties are due to anyone for anything. That is not the same as saying that people cannot make a business out of supplying and supporting Linux systems. Why the users rather than the computer companies made Linux is that such a market is a free market, open to competition. You are free to self­support Linux or contract that support to someone with better skills and resources. As the source of everything is available there is no excuse for problems not to be resolved.

Linux is Leverage

Linux is ideal for use within large organisations that choose to employ their own support staff. Linux with the readily available documentation and Internet based communication with other users means that your staff can self solve problems rather than just passing on information to and from the software vendor. This is both good for staff morale and means that skill levels are always increasing. It also means that your staff can feed back improvements into the Linux software base. This is what I mean by leverage. By using Linux your staff can increase productivity by having access to the ideas and expertise of others with some reciprocation in the opposite direction. However as knowledge shared is knowledge gained the leverage of fully co­operating with other rather than just 'taking' is very worth­while.

Many large organisations have already discovered this and have environments where Linux and other UNIX systems work together seamlessly. NASA are heavy Linux users including several large multi node parallel systems for stellar simulation work. Linux has even been into space! An IBM Thinkpad was used to control experiments on a recent Shuttle flight. Several US Utility companies run Linux systems as data collectors.

Linux is also a major player in the infrastructure of the Internet. At least 9% of World Wide Web sites are Linux based and it is also used by many Internet Service Providers. Linux machines, even quite humble ones, make great fire­walls, routers and even file and print servers for existing networks. A single Linux machine can allow files to be shared between Novell, SMB, Appletalk and NFS.

People use Linux when they want reliability, ease of maintenance and an attractively low cost. Unlike an ill fated decision to buy into Windows the low cost of Linux should not be your main factor in choosing it!

The Role of Java

Java is a Unix technology. Sun has done a clever PR job on de­emphasizing this so as not to frighten PC centric managers. Like the UNIX technology before it, C, Java has the potential to unite different hardware platforms and provide portability. Unlike C this is all done without a need for conditional compilation as Java uses the concept of a 'virtual machine' so that Java programs can be the same even when underlying hardware is different.

Java is a fairly 'low level' language. It will probably replace many of the jobs now done by C or C++. The place where Java will make the biggest impact is as an implementation language for the next generation of packaged software. At present Microsoft has such a dominant market position because it is too hard to port existing Windows software to other systems. This means that the bulk of Application software only ever gets written for Windows (which is a hard slog) and technically superior OS platforms like Apple Mac, Unix and Linux are starved of Application choice.

Within 6 months Java will put this situation on its head. Apart from Microsoft, who must secretly wish it would all go away, Application vendors are sinking billions of dollars into producing Java based software such as general Office applications. They have the benefit that once Java software is written it will never have to be ported to new hardware again. The Java virtual machine will provide all the resources needed for the application to do its task. There is an added benefit in that because an application is running in a virtual machine there is less scope for a rogue or Trojan application to wreak havoc.

In a way Java is bringing to application programmers the same sort of freedom that UNIX hackers with their shell and Perl scripts have had for years.

The big benefit for Linux is that it has a Java VM (in fact a choice of several competing implementations) so will be able to run all the new Java based software as well as any Windows system.

The Role of Perl

Java may be the answer to Application vendors prayers but it is too low level to be a suitable language to responding to fast changing user requirements. Perl complements Java as it fills this role perfectly. Perl programs can be very rapidly proto­typed but with proper software engineering can be reliable enough for full production use but yet flexible enough to change quickly to respond to new needs. Perl is a much higher level language than Java without a huge speed penalty for being so. Speed critical parts of Perl programs can always be re­coded in C or C++ if needed. Language profiling support is provided to ensure that the re­writing process does not get out of hand. Perl has full support for Object Orientated and Client­Server programming. One particularly interesting Perl technology is called Penguin which allows machines to pass each other cryptographically signed packets of Perl code to be executed in a controlled environment. Penguin means that other machines never have to be trusted any more than needed to perform the required function leading to a robust system. An ideal implementation of Penguin would be to do an SQL query on a remote machine but with some custom filtering on the intermediate result before return to the caller. This is a way that 'variable width' clients can be constructed to maximize overall system utilization. One very beneficial use for this would be an application specific convention of abbreviating returned data so that the slow part of network transfer was shorter. Smart abbreviation would achieve much greater effective network speed than data compression alone.

Linux as a turn­key system

The concept of multiple users is something lacking from all versions of Windows. The concept is however a valuable one if a system is to be used by people who have no interest in, or business in changing the way that the computer is set up.

Linux can be set up so that the system boots into X windows with all data areas mounted by either NFS, SMB or Novell networking protocols. The window manager can be configured so that only specific business functions are available from the desktop. Novice users can even be denied interactive access to a system shell. Or access to a restricted shell that only permits safe operations, such as manipulating files within a specific directory but not being able to move out of it.

However the big difference is the full range of UNIX flexibility lies behind the menus on the users system. The applications that the user invokes can be Shell or Perl scripts, locally running binary programs, terminal programs firing up with remote programs and now, even full Java applications.

Unlike a Windows based PC which is stuck with traditional client­server or dumb terminal emulation with Linux power on the desktop a sensible plan can be made about how 'fat' a client is needed for each task. At one extreme would be a program that ran entirely on the desktop machine, getting its data by NFS. The other extreme would be complete remote execution with just an X window display from the remote application.

The first of these choices would suit a job which required 'greedy' CPU use but not much IO. Having the task running locally means that only the user that wants the task to run would be impacted by it. An example would be the calculations required to produce fancy display graphics.

The second choice is for a business critical job that has high data throughput but a relatively small amount of that data is fed back to the user. Many database operations fall into this role. A pure host­only solution is a bit of a cop­out in that the cheap CPU power on the desktop is lying idle while the expensive CPU in the server is being asked to do all the work. Such solutions do not scale well. The ideal system would be one where the optimum balance of local CPU utilization to network traffic was attained. This is not easy to do as it must be remembered that networks are glacially slow when compared to modern CPUs so moving data just for the sake of it being processed somewhere else is something to be watched for.

Clearly what is needed is the ability to use a mix of different client/server technologies to attain maximum throughput for the system as a whole. Linux because it shares its technology with the big host UNIX systems is ideal for this role. Perl can be used to construct various custom client/server scenarios quickly to assess the best way forward.

Confidence in the system

What puts many people off Linux is that being a collectively developed system there is no vendor to be held responsible for defects. To put it bluntly, there is nobody to sue. However the notion of a central party being responsible for such a complex system and therefore liable in law has serious negative effects which damage the integrity of the system as a whole. Centralised control means collective knowledge is no longer available for understanding shortcomings and rectifying them. Even if bugs can be identified in a centrally controlled system the information is simply not there to investigate bugs in a meaningful way so bugs remain unresolved for months or even years. A proprietary OS such as Windows is like a public transport bus. It will take you to where you want to go (sort of) but if it breaks down you are left standing at the side of the road. You are dependent on the Bus Company to fix the problem or send out a replacement bus. The average bus passenger would on no account be expected to have the knowledge or equipment to fix the bus. Linux is like a car, yes it can go wrong, or the new accessory that you have fitted turns out to be a turkey. Unlike a bus simple problems with a car (like a flat tire) many people would be able to solve for themselves, or at least know where to get an expert who can get the car going again.

Linux removes the mystery that the computer industry has spent the last 40 years cultivating. Armed with source code a Linux computer is like any other piece of engineering ­ it can be fixed or even modified by anyone with enough knowledge.

As far as controlling this explosion of creative effort goes centralised project management on such a massive scale is pointless. Linux works because people agree on interface specifications between components and programming is done defensively. Unlike Windows; Linux & UNIX have the concept of file permissions to prevent users tampering with each other's data and controlled execution environments for code that is not totally trusted such as Java and Perl Penguin module.

Most people writing Linux software are writing it primarily because they need it themselves. The prospect of code being on public display can only aid the natural desire for quality. Developers are generally getting so much leverage from being able to build on the work of others that the quality of many packages is very high and getting higher.

With normal common sense in configuration control you should be able to expect a community of Linux systems to be manageable with less instability and security threat than any proprietary OS.


Linux is a revolution in the UNIX world that is beginning to make in­roads into Microsoft's PC homeland. After years of talk in the UNIX community about Open Systems Linux is the first Open System that is also accessible to everyone.

Although it started as an Intel PC only OS Linux now runs on PC, DEC Alpha, Sun Sparc, SGI Mips, Power PC, Be, Apple Mac, Acorn ARM.

As it is free from any licensing costs it is the best chance yet of the UNIX community arriving at a single unified OS to go alongside the single unified Applications programming language of Java and the single unified scripting language of Perl.

Some Computer vendors, notably DEC and Apple, are actively funding Linux development for their platforms but others, notably Sun, are cooler, seeing Linux as a threat to their revenues from proprietary UNIX variants (which indeed it is). Linux offers immense cost and productivity benefits to corporate users who are big enough to have their own computer support staff. A computing infrastructure with Linux on desk-tops and taking some server processing roles means that support staff get a chance to use skills rather than just being a message relay service to the OS vendor.

Linux is also great fun as it is so empowering ­ as millions of people world­wide have now found out for themselves.

Yours Truly

Martin Houston

Mr Eglin's Response

This was by fax - which I have scanned in and passed through OCR software:
Roger Eglin,
Sunday Times,
1 Pennington Street,
London ECl 9XW
Fax: 0171-782-5100
Tel: 0l71-782-5752
Dear Mr Houston,
I passed your letter and article over to David Hewson for comment.
Basically he reaffirms what he said in his column. The crux of the
matter is whether Linux is, as your installation notes on th cover disk claim,
"a complete replacement for DOS and Windows" - in other words for all users.
This is not a view David shares. He says it is too hard to use and can create
enormous problems for novice users who try to install it. He also believes that
the majority of PC users, who are in business or the home, require common
industry standard applications which are not found on Linux. A large number of
Linux user's, who disagree with other points in his piece, do actually support
the idea that it is not for the ordinary PC user (who is just the sort to pick
it up from PCW). And he also has emails from a number of very unhappy ordinary
users who have not been. Impressed by what Linux has done for them.
But he says your are right about the email. After an orchestrated campaign he
has been receiving up to ten megabytes a day of genuine emails, plain abuse, a
couple of threats of violence, hag been enrolled as a subscriber to hundreds of
Net mailing lists, and sent several suspicious files.
For your edification, here's a sample. , . .
From: Oleg Dulin]
Sent: 21 April 1997 23:53
To :
Subject: @#$% YOU! ! !
Fuck you, you ignorant USER! . : You are a freaking son of a motherfucking
bitch! ! !
You think you have rights to talk about something YOU HAVE NO IDEA ABOUT
???? You are an ignorant stupid sheep who follows other sheep who in
turn follow the shepherd. ! . You ASSHOLE! . ..
What the fuck ???? I am making here $20 us an hour for writing Linux
software, you ignorant JackaSS! ! !
You are a disgrace to our community, you are a waste of time your
parents spent on you, you are a waste of skin. People like you should
shut their big mouth and lock themselves up in their caves! ! !
From: /dev/
Sent: 23 April 1997 00:31
To : an77@dial:pipex. com
Subject: Bad news
You are in serious trouble for blaspheming LiNUX. Prepare to reap the
This is not to accuse you of sinking to such levels in your letter which
was quite correct. However to be considered as a letter to the paper for
publication outlining your position, your will have to make your point more
briefly. What you sent me is probably longer than any single piece likely to
appear in The Sunday Times. But my feeling is that what David Hewson had to say
was fair Comment about a matter of interest to many of our readers.
Roger Eglin 
( END )

At 9 pages I guess the original piece was too long for the ST! I spent to next few days working with Bob Young the CEO of Red Hat Software to 'make our point more briefly' and produce the following...

Response to David Hewson

Letter to the Editor.
Sunday Times.

Dear Sir;

As the person responsible for talking PCW Magazine into putting Linux on the cover CD (for the third time now) I can assure you that David Hewson's assertion that Linux users hate Microsoft just because Gates won the Operating System war is simply wrong.

The message we are trying to put across is: It would be rather foolish of the rest of the computer industry to allow ONE company to control virtually everything to do with computers. Microsoft already dominates the desktop. With Windows NT they are trying to enter the big system domain of Unix and Mainframes. The Linux community believes that the Operating System should be a matter of public agreement and open standards. Only that way do application vendors get a truly level playing field, without suffering the strongest player regularly 'moving the goal-posts' as Microsoft does so often.

I think you must be working David Hewson rather too hard. In the 20th April issue I counted him as writing no less than seven articles in the Comdex supplement as well as what can only be described as a savage attack on peoples right to be informed of fundamental choices about how they are going to get the best out of an often considerable investment in computers.

David seems to be rather confused in his attitude to Unix. When (in the Comdex Supplement) he is singing the praises of NT he says "NT's design goal was to match the rock-like stability of Unix" but when it comes to talking about Linux his attitude turns to "Linux, for the uninitiated, is a version of that old computer donkey known as Unix."

"That old computer donkey" is where the majority of real computing jobs are! Unix is not so much a specific product but a deep rooted philosophy of how to use computers to solve problems, rather than them just being a platform for ready made packaged solutions.

The most important point about Unix in general and Linux in particular is that it is free and open. Freedom in Linux is not it's low cost. It is the fact that all the software has been developed in the open by groups of developers, engineers, and researchers across the net who share a common aim in that they need to use the software they are developing. Linux software tends to be well tested, solid and advanced. It helps to think of 'free' as 'priceless' as the amount of valuable software delivered on the magazine CD would be beyond any individual's ability to fully pay for.

Linux gives the individual and the organization the ability to use advanced computers as they chose without being beholden to computer companies in Redmond Washington or anywhere else. That is what is so important about Linux, and why you shouldn't throw the May PCW CD away, but instead take time to read the on-disk documentation and realize what this is really all about.

PC hardware is now faster than expensive Workstations of just a few years ago. Linux exploits that power to turn the humble PC into a really powerful tool for the mind.

Learn about Linux and you will become a member of an international cyberspace community millions of people strong who believe that the control and understanding that they gain from choosing Linux over Windows as their computing system is well worth the modest investment in learning.

Maybe David expected a whole free clone of Office97 on the CD? sorry to disappoint you.... Linux is evolving fast, out on the cyberspace frontier.

Want to know more? feel free to visit RedHat's web site or my home page

One last piece of advice to the timid: Linux runs just fine on computers too slow for Windows95 and Office97. So don't throw your old 486 and P90/P100 machines away - use them to teach yourself about the new world of Linux. Linux makes a great network server, even on older hardware!

Still too long!

Even though it is now shorter than David Hewson's original piece. After not responding to my phone calls for several days Mr Roger Eglin finally admitted that the ST have decided after all not to give me a right of reply. Strange that the subject is now 'inappropriate' for publication.

The Sunday Times is choosing to ignore that they are deluged with email from angry computer users. Usenet postings on the subject number well over 500 - see for yourself on Dejanews [ ]. Who is pulling the strings?

Copyright 1997