After-school project looms as nightmare for Microsoft

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 January, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 January, 1999, 12:00am

The rise of Linux from a university student's after-school project to the fastest-growing operating system has been like a fairy tale, although the people at Microsoft may soon be wishing it was just a bad dream.

Linux is open-code freeware. Not only is Linux free to use, but the programmer's code used to create it also is freely available to anyone who cares to change it or improve it.

Thanks to this open-code policy, a dedicated group of programmers and hackers worldwide created an impressive piece of software with all the trendy, geek-speak features you can imagine. It is a multi-threading, pre-emptive multi-tasking, scalable system with protected memory. The upshot is simply that Linux is powerful and almost crash-proof.

Until recently, Linux was an OS by hackers for hackers. Without a degree in computer science, you had little hope of getting it up and running. Linux is based on Unix, which is sort of like DOS on steroids. It is powerful, but far from intuitive. You were faced with a rather uninspiring text interface. Even if you could get past all of that, there was not a word-processor or a spreadsheet or much else for Linux that non-programmers would consider useful.

My own first Linux experience less than a year ago was less than rewarding. After about a week of false starts, it took me a full day to get the OS installed and running. When I was finished, I had a bulletproof OS which, thanks to a graphics-card-incompatibility, made my machine look something like a Commodore 64 with chunky 16-colour graphics. I sat staring at my accomplishment and twiddling my thumbs as there was nothing useful I could do with it.

Things have changed quite a bit. I still have problems with my non-standard graphics card, but installation and set-up takes only a few hours. Linux now includes X Windows, a graphical-user interface much like Windows or the Macintosh OS. X Windows is still not as easy to use as Mac or Windows, but is far easier than standard, text-based Unix.

There are at least three real word-processors available for Linux, including the free-for-download WordPerfect. There are some more attractive e-mail programs than Pine, although I am told getting Linux to dial into the Internet is no mean feat.

One of the biggest reasons why Linux is now more user-friendly is a little US company called Red Hat, which makes a CD-Rom which does the tricky business of installing Linux on your PC, although it is still not nearly as automatic as a Mac or Windows installer. While Linux is free, the Red Hat installer is not, but a non-pirated version of Red Hat costs less than $300.

I also tried 'SuSE', which is a German Linux installer. In spite of some eclectic English, it was equally easy to use and X Windows was easier to configure.

I am not about ready to turn my Mac over to Linux, but people running a server for a business definitely should take a long, hard look. There simply are no other operating systems that can offer Linux's stability and can let you outfit an entire company for less than the cost of a single computer.

Running Linux also means no more problems with employees installing computer games or other time-wasting software which is readily available for Windows.

As for the rest of you, trying Linux certainly will not break your wallet but do not expect to be blown away by the software choices, which, despite the estimated seven million people who have installed Linux, remain limited.

How will this improve? It may well start in Hong Kong of all places. According to a representative of the Computer Manufacturers Association, the group is negotiating with Microsoft over the cost of licensing Windows to pre-install on the machines they make. The local price is higher here than in other places in Asia, they say. If Microsoft fails to meet their demands, the group says its members will offer computers with Linux pre-installed rather than Windows.