By Charles Babcock
May 13, 1998
Linux, a Unix-like operating system that runs on Intel Corp. hardware, has garnered about 5 million users, half of them in the past year alone. Some observers say that if Windows should falter for any reason, Linux is the most likely alternative.
Linux is a real-world operating system, with a strong stake in the Internet service provider (ISP) market and the rest of the Net community.
Linux was born at the same time as the World Wide Web and was developed over the Net, under the direction of Linus Torvalds at the University of Helsinki in Finland.
ISPs use Linux as their server operating system because it is free, stable and -- despite reports -- support for the operating system is strong. It is used as a teaching system in academic institutions, and Unix developers like it because it runs on their Intel hardware at home.
But whether it can move beyond these niches is still in dispute. Many corporate information systems (IS) managers and top business executives refuse to allow their businesses to become dependent on a piece of freeware. Still, Linux is making inroads.
"I talked to the chief financial officer at a bank in New York, and he said they weren't using Linux. They didn't want to run the bank on unsupported software," recalls Dan Kuznetsky, director of operating system research at International Data Corp. (www.idc.com). "Then I talked to the IS staff, and they said they had 100 servers running Linux."
Kuznetsky says he asked the staffers why the chief financial officer didn't know about their Linux servers and they said: "He's the one who told us to build the intranet but didn't give us much of a budget."
One of Linux's chief barriers to adoption in the business world is the perception that it is unsupported, says Larry Augustin, a member of the Silicon Valley Linux Users Group (www.svlug.org) and president of V.A. Research Inc. (www.varesearch.com), a Linux system reseller in Mountain View, Calif.
"All large commercial institutions are running Linux somewhere, but frequently the IS manager doesn't know about it," Augustin says. In many cases, Web sites on low budgets have been built using Linux, he says.
Tim O'Reilly, chief executive officer of computer book publisher O'Reilly & Associates Inc. (www.ora.com), the leader in freeware publishing, says most of the Internet is running on freeware or "open source code" software. The Apache Web server was a leading example of ongoing development and technical support over the Web. The Perl scripting language frequently used for Common Gateway Interface applications on Web sites is another example, as is SendMail, used by most Unix systems.
But he agrees that Linux needs more exposure as a stable system before it will be adopted into the business world. "The biggest obstacle to open source code is the perception that it is not legitimate. My answer to IS managers is, 'Get your head out of the sand.' If you use the Internet, you're using freeware," O'Reilly says.
Although Linux was codeveloped as freeware, the Linux developer community provides documentation and technical support in user groups over the Web at such sites as www.linux.org or sunsite.unc.edu/LDP.
In addition, commercial vendors such as Caldera Inc. (www.caldera.com) and Red Hat Software Inc. (www.redhat.com) sell Linux packaged with utilities and tools for about $49 per copy and offer support contracts at roughly $500 for each user per year, Augustin says.
Caldera in Provo, Utah, offers the StarOffice application suite with its Linux package, produced by the Star Division in Hamburg, Germany, but user applications remain a weakness of the operating system so far.
"I'm now seeing a lot of independent software developers out there working on applications," Augustin says, and Applix Inc. (www.applix.com) offers a sophisticated office suite for $289.
Netscape Communications Corp. Executive Vice President Marc Andreessen told the Massachusetts Software Council last month that Linux will consolidate the Unix community around itself and continue its rapid growth. Netscape's Communicator browser suite from here on out will routinely include support for Linux, he said.
Edith Gong, group product manager for Communicator, says Linux shows that a community of developers "can do a better job on system software than a development project managed internally by a proprietary company."
"Oracle [Corp.], Sybase [Inc.] and Informix [Corp.] all have Linux versions of their products," IDC's Kuznetsky adds. The database companies will offer Linux versions of their products as soon as "somebody proves that a market exists," he says.
And that day is coming soon, predicts IDC analyst Bill Peterson. Linux lacks applications and relies on the X/Open graphical user interface -- only a bare-bones version of a graphical user interface compared with the Windows 95 interface. But an investment in Linux could change that. "Somebody will throw venture capital at the Star Division or some other start-up, and Linux will take off," Peterson says.
The Line On Linux
Linux Continues To Grow...
Copies Of Linux Sold In 1997: 2 million
Copies Of Linux Given Away In 1997: 300,000-500,000
Total Copies Of Linux Sold/Given Away In 1997: 2.3-2.5 million
Copies Of Linux Previously Sold/Given Away: 2.5 million
Total Installed Base Of Linux: 4.8-5.0 million
...But It's Still No Match For Windows
Copies Of Windows 3X, Windows 95 And Windows NT Shipped In 1997: 69.2 million
Total Installed Base Of Windows 3X, Windows 95 And Windows NT: 220 million*
* Does not include Windows NT Server
Source: International Data Corp.