Linux Gains Popularity, Industry Backing

OS David vs. Windows Goliath

By Michael J. Martinez

October 14, 1998

Can Linux really challenge Windows for a slice of the operating system (OS) market?

Apparently some think so. In late September, Intel, Netscape and two venture capital firms poured an undisclosed sum of money into Red Hat Software, the foremost distributor of Linux. The company, based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., started as a software distribution company but has moved exclusively into writing applications and supporting Linux. Other companies, have big plans to write programs for the Linux platform as well: Corel, for example, is readying a Linux version of WordPerfect.

“More and more of our customers are using Linux alongside their other systems,” says Netscape Vice President Tim Howes. “Our customers are starting to demand more support from us, and we want to give it to them.”

With powerful backers, the affection of programmers and developers who nurse a powerful disdain for Windows, and plenty of media buzz in the last few weeks, Linux could be seen as a rearguard action against the dominance of Windows, which controls some 90 percent of the OS market.

But before crowning this grassroots operating system as The Next Big Thing, keep in mind that Linux isn’t exactly for the techno-timid. It’s based on UNIX, an older networking system, and its use by non-geeks in mainstream computing is still limited. Whether it will break out into the wider marketplace remains to be seen.

Hacker Heritage

Linux is the brainchild of Linus Torvalds, who created it as a hobby while a student at the University of Helsinki back in 1991. In collaboration with fellow code hackers from around the world, Torvalds introduced Linux 1.0 in 1994 and gave it away over the Internet.

Today, Linux is primarily used as a networking system. It handles basic functions like file-and-print, launches software programs and allows computers to talk to the main server in a network. It allows small companies to create Web servers and networks using older hardware. Big companies—like America Online, Cisco Systems and even the U.S. Postal Service—use Linux for certain database, tracking and Web-serving functions.

But Robert Young, CEO of Red Hat, claims that Linux can do a lot more. Eventually, Young maintains, Linux can go on workstations and personal computers for general use.

“We build more reliable systems with Linux,” Young says. “It has a higher portability (than Windows), it’s more secure and efficient, and we’re now starting to get more applications for it.”

The UNIX Lesson

One of Linux’s main advantages over Windows is that it remains free. The source code—the lines of code that make up every single bit of the software—is available for downloading over the Internet.

When UNIX first came out in the early 1970s, it didn’t have open source code, and was quickly “balkanized” by competing software companies. Today, Sun’s version of UNIX is different enough from Hewlett-Packard’s version of UNIX, for example, that software developers can’t write one program that will run on both systems.

Companies like Red Hat, Caldera and others can sell different versions of Linux as well; but under the licensing agreement they, too, must make the source code available and remain true to Torvalds’ original vision. In the end, no matter who sells packaged versions, Linux will remain Linux. And it will still be available free.

“Giving away the technology for free builds business for the services you can offer with that technology,” Young says. “The benefit of having your operating system freely available is that you have control over the system itself. It allows you and others to build applications that are more reliable, and that creates more demand.”

In fact, Young says, by selling shrink-wrapped versions of Linux, along with support manuals and networking software, Red Hat has steadily maintained a positive cash flow while supporting a free operating system.

“We keep selling more shrink-wrapped (Linux) systems than we give away,” Young says. “It never ceases to amaze me.”

But What Can It Do?

Meanwhile, Linux has become the OS of choice for computer enthusiasts. Jeremy Blackman, a Seattle-based game designer, uses Linux to run his own private Web server and Internet service provider. He’s also networked all of his home computers using Linux. His main network server is a six-year-old 486 machine.

“The core of the system is far, far faster than Windows,” Blackman says. “This is not due to any ‘amazing feat of code,’ merely that Linux doesn't have the legacy of Win3.x and DOS behind it. Windows does, and still has to support both, which causes it to be bloated and slow.”

Even so, few companies today want to take the chance of putting their computer networks in the hands of an operating system created by a scattered group of developers, with no tech support to speak of and without the huge market clout of Windows.

“In order for people to want to install an operating system, they’re going to want single-vendor responsibility, someone to take the blame and help fix things when they go wrong,” says George Weiss, an analyst with the Gartner Group. “It doesn’t look like Red Hat is in any shape to do that right now.”

Industry Champions

Nevertheless, industry support for Linux is growing. Netscape, of course, has its reasons for supporting anything other than Windows—its browser is available for Linux, and Howes says the company’s Directory and Messaging server products will be available on Linux by the first quarter of next year. Intel, through its investment, is hoping that Linux will be an option for Intel-based high-end servers—an area where Intel faces tough competition from UNIX-based servers.

And starting next year, Dell, Compaq and Gateway have announced that they’ll ship computers with Linux pre-installed.

The ultimate goal, Young says, is to get those using Windows NT to think twice, and Red Hat will use its recent capital investment to work on server applications and other support for Linux. But if the Linux community wants to go after Microsoft, it will have to do so carefully—in a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Microsoft identified Linux as a potential threat to its 90 percent market share in operating systems.


Copyright 1998 ABCNEWS and Starwave Corporation.