The Penguin That Roared
Little Linux freeware gaining ground against giant Microsoft
By David Einstein, Staff Writer
The San Francisco Chronicle
September 8, 1998
The biggest challenge facing Microsoft may not be coming from the Justice Department or Sun Microsystems. Rather, it's in the form of a free operating system called Linux.
Created seven years ago by Linus Torvalds, who was a Finnish university student at the time, Linux has turned into a modern-day rendition of the mouse that roared -- or in this case, the penguin that took on Windows. (A cuddly penguin is the unofficial symbol of Linux).
Linux is a form of Unix, the system that runs the basic functions for big corporate computer networks. But unlike most other kinds of Unix, which are designed for computer workstations, Linux works fine on your average Intel-based desktop computer.
Corporations, ever-mindful of the cost of technology, are starting to use Linux on PC servers -- computers that manage networks. And that puts it in direct competition with Windows NT, Microsoft's operating system for networks composed of PCs.
Microsoft isn't in any immediate danger. This year, according to Dataquest, Linux will account for just 1 percent of the operating systems sold for PC servers versus more than 60 percent for Microsoft.
But Linux is growing fast, with usage in corporations up 30 percent last year, according to ProData Information Services.
Moreover, Linux could eventually become a credible operating system for corporate workers and home users. All it needs is a better Windowslike interface and a bunch of good applications such as word processors, spreadsheets and databases.
Linux is catching on because it offers the proven reliability of Unix -- which has been around for a lot longer than NT -- yet also can be used on PC-based networks. And it will run comfortably on PCs that aren't powerful enough for Windows -- which means companies don't have to upgrade older computers to use it.
The biggest advantage of Linux is that it can be downloaded at no charge from the World Wide Web. As with other ``freeware,'' the source code has been copyrighted (by Torvalds) under a public license that calls for free distribution.
Many of the programs that have been developed to work with Linux also are free, although an increasing number are being sold commercially.
About the only thing working against Linux is the reluctance some companies have in embracing free software that isn't backed by customer service from a major vendor. Nevertheless, it's been adopted by heavyweights including Wells Fargo, Boeing and Cisco, as well as NASA and the U.S. Postal Service.
Linux, which had been something of a cult phenomenon, leaped into the mainstream last month when Netscape Communications, Oracle and Informix announced they would adapt their products to work on it.
``We looked to what customers wanted and we saw a groundswell of demand to expand support for Linux,'' said David Weiden, vice president for directory and security products at Netscape.
Netscape, Oracle and Informix also saw the chance to nourish an operating system that could be a thorn in the side of their common arch-rival, Microsoft.
Linux isn't quite ready to take the measure of Windows NT, but its technology is evolving at a furious rate as users modify the free source code, improving it and creating new programs to work with it.
``We have literally 100,000 software developers helping us over the Internet, and they're not hackers in their basement. They're engineers at NASA and Boeing and GE and MIT,'' said Bob Young, president of Red Hat Software. Red Hat, based in North Carolina, is one of several companies that sell easy-to-install compilations of Unix and other software programs that work with it.
Several desktop interfaces are available for Linux, but they're all rudimentary compared to Windows or the Macintosh operating system. But that's going to change: Two technologies called K Desktop Environment and the Gnome Project are vying to become the standard interface, and both show promise.
In addition, Windowslike applications are starting to show up for Linux. The most well known so far is WordPerfect from Corel, a powerful word processing program.
With Netscape, Oracle and Informix in the fold, more applications are sure to follow.
``I think there are enough vendors against Microsoft that they'll make this happen,'' said Dataquest's Brown.
Linux also has become the operating system of choice for college students, said Brown, ``And they're the ones who are going to design tomorrow's software.''
Young acknowledges that Microsoft has ``a huge head start'' on Linux. ``Do I think I'm going to put them out of business any time soon? Not a chance. But do I think I can deliver a product with benefits they aren't prepared to deliver? Absolutely.''
©1998 San Francisco Chronicle