Contender or pretender? Featured

9:56am EDT July 22, 2002

What makes the Linux operating system so great that techno-geeks can’t stop talking about it?

It’s free. Sort of.

Linux can be legally downloaded off of the Internet for free. The only problem is, it doesn’t come with a manual, so there’s a steep learning curve. That’s where distributors such as Redhat software come in. For a price, you can buy a packaged version of the product, along with many utilities and programs that make the operating system more functional.

Another advantage is that the source code is open, meaning developers can custom-write programs and applications to meet particular needs without paying a hefty price to Bill Gates and the Microsoft empire.

But before you throw Windows 98 into the recycle bin, consider a few more facts about Linux:

  • For now, the operating system is best utilized as a server. “Linux is starting to emerge on the desktop, but you usually find it being used as a server,” says Ron Henderson, chief technology officer for Albany, N.Y.-based Unified Technologies, a provider of information technology and business solutions. “You find a lot of them being used as mail servers. A Linux server can support file and printer services for Windows clients.”

    What this means is that a business can avoid paying for a Windows NT server license, utilizing a PC loaded with Linux instead.

  • Applications for the desktop may not be available. Linux is not simply a substitute for Windows that saves you money. It will not run Microsoft Word, or any other program designed for Windows, without the use of an emulator. There are programs available for Linux that perform many of the same functions, but the amount of support available may be limited.

  • Linux is a rising star, despite its current shortcomings. Major developers such as IBM and Hewlitt-Packard are developing products for the platform. Of all the servers shipped in 1998, 17 percent were Linux-based machines. Linux may eventually rival Windows NT in the server market, because studies show that of those using NT, 50 percent use it for file and printer servers — a task Linux can do without the costs associated with NT.

    At a glance

    Linux, while making a splash in a server role, is just starting to emerge on the desktop. Several new GUI (Graphical User Interface, a tech term that translates to “looks like Windows”) projects are being developed.

    Corel Corp., best known for its CorelDraw and WordPerfect software, recently announced a plan to develop a GUI for Linux that will be bundled with Wine, an emulator that allows users to run Windows programs on the Linux platform.

    If you’re looking for alternatives to Microsoft products, Star Division Corp.’s StarOffice has received acceptance from businesses, as has Corel’s WordPerfect 8 for Linux. Corel is also reportedly working on versions of its Quattro Pro spreadsheet, as well as a port of its entire WordPerfect Office 2000 suite for Linux.