Tux may make life tough for Microsoft

The Economic Times

June 30, 1998

Yogesh Katekar writes about a little-known operating software which is waging a quiet but effective war against Windows

PARALLEL to its well-publicised conflict with the US Department of Justice, Microsoft is fighting off another adversary -- a cute-looking penguin called Tux, and his friends. Tux is the mascot for the `open source' Unix-like computer operating system Linux that many experts say could deliver a body-blow to Microsoft's hegemony.

The free source Linux movement has quietly been gathering momentum for over four years now.

Consider this: from a user base of barely 1.5 million two years ago, it has grown to between five and seven million users today. According to a survey by International Data Group, Linux accounted for 13 per cent of all Unix systems commissioned in 1997. That makes it the No 4 Unix in the world. It is also the only operating software (OS) that actually grew in marketshare in 1997, apart from Microsoft's ubiquitous Windows.

Accurate estimates, however, are tricky at best, because the OS is essentially free, and consequently, can be freely distributed. So when Linus Torvalds, the author of Linux, talks about `world domination', he comes across as almost a missionary for `open source' rather than a Gates baiter.

And yet, this free OS is catalysing a change that may just steer the mass-market software industry to operate on principles that are fundamentally different from the `proprietary code' business model exemplified by Microsoft. Unlike most commercial software products, Linux can only be sold, or even distributed, with its source code. So the source of moolah is not the OS itself, but value addition and technical support.

And of course, application development. ``The future model for software is that mass market software will be delivered for a price calculated as follows: cost to reproduce, plus value added, plus promotional costs, plus distribution costs, equals price. Money can be made on services and value add surrounding the product. This includes consulting, customisation, support and much more,'' says Mark Bolzern, president of US-based Work Group Solutions, a leading Linux vendor.

Bolzern, incidentally, had predicted right on the mark and well before anyone else did, such milestones as the failure of Apple Computer's `Lisa', the success of the erstwhile Ashton Tate's dBase III+, and the downfall of the same company's dBase IV.

Now, Bolzern is predicting some cataclysmic changes for Microsoft's OS empire: ``In the coming years, Microsoft could face stiff resistance from other OSes, especially Linux. It probably will not destroy Windows, but it will certainly grab a substantial share of the market.''

That is a rather bold prediction. But then, there are enough signs that suggest that it is no shot in the dark.

Red Hat, for instance, which started operations in January 1995 with a staff of two, is now 47-strong. Revenue has been growing at over 100 per cent per annum, and ``our business plan, which we are running ahead of, calls for us to close at about 20 million this year, and double for the next three years,'' says an upbeat Bob young, founder of Red Hat, a leading distributor of Linux.

Caldera, another vendor, in which Novell's founder Ray Noorda has a substantial stake, has its own distribution Open Linux, which it has benchmarked against Windows NT 4.0 (go to http://www.caldera.com). Then there is SuSe, which is quite popular in Europe. It is not quite as visible in the US, ``but we have been growing at over 40 per cent per annum in Germany, and intend to grow at twice that rate in the US,'' says James Gray, SuSe's man in America.

Quite a few industry biggies are unequivocally backing the dark horse. The foremost among them is Netscape, severely wounded following Microsoft's browser onslaught. Netscape chief Marc Andreessen recently said his company would seriously consider making its own `distribution' of Linux. There are others too.

* Corel Corporation's spin-off Corel Computer is basing its NetWinder line of network computers, around Linux.

* Sun Microsystems, the high-end Unix behemoth, is supporting the Linux community in porting the OS to its high-end Ultra Sparc servers. Sun has also joined Linux International, a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting Linux.

* Intel, whose chips power more than 85 per cent of the world's desktop PCs, is also backing the Linux camp's porting efforts to make it compatible with Intel's upcoming 64-bit chip, Merced.

* Oracle, the company that makes the largest selling RDBMS, is rumoured to be working to port its flagship database system to Linux.

* And Microsoft has made a Linux version of its multi-media Web- server software Netshow, which many see as the big M's tacit admission of Linux's growing clout in the server market. What's more, it is also adapting its Active Server Pages technology to run on Unices, among them Linux.

``The business user is not looking for just a network operating system with features a, b, or c. Their requirements are ease of use, interoperability and functionality, among others. Linux does not compete with NT in the customer space,'' asserts Neeraj Shaabi, marketing manager (NT and BackOffice), Microsoft India.

The facts are at some variance with Shaabi's contention. There are several commercial organisations that have adopted Linux for applications ranging from intra-office networks (General Motors, United States Postal Service), to Internet Web servers (Linux Journal, dejanews.com, among others).

Cable Internet, among the leading ISPs in the UK, runs its servers for its 110,000 subscribers, solely on Linux. Cable Internet is the Internet division of the UK Cable company Telewest Communications.

Or take Cisco Systems, probably the world's fastest growing networking system. The company runs all of its print servers -- some 90 of them -- on Linux. IDC in a recent report found that Linux is present in at least some departments of a majority of companies polled.

The OS is fast establishing itself on the the server side, but most users' desktops still run MS-Windows. That's another potentially huge market. James Love, associate of Ralph Nader, agrees: ``I think the applications will be there (I have installed Netscape Communicator 4.04, Wordperfect 7.0 and StarOffice), if the OS can become more user friendly. I think that Linux is not yet a mass market consumer product, but it is moving along faster than we would have expected.''

Application vendors such as Applix Works and Germany's Star Division, each have their own office application suites. Applix even sells a `converter' that can read files made on MS Office, and even generates files that are readable by that package -- so no-one need fear being a Linux island.

Copyright 1998