Linux needs key to Office

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 December, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 December, 1999, 12:00am

Imagine an operating system (OS) that runs like a train, hardly ever crashes and costs nothing to install. Come the day, you may say. But such an OS is already with us - Linux OS - which has grabbed headlines for the past year.

Linux will run on almost any PC and most Macs. Like Windows and any other kind of OS, it acts as a computer's internal logic, controlling the interpretation of orders made by whoever moves the mouse and taps the keys.

Linux has at least 10 million users. That's not many compared with Windows users, but Microsoft feels beleaguered because Linux's user base is expanding fast and the OS already dominates the Internet service provider arena.

You might assume Linux was created by a huge company with scores of programmers working on it. In fact, it emerged under strangely low-key circumstances, mostly through the effort of Linus Torvalds, who developed it when still a student at the University of Helsinki in 1991.

The boy wonder developed Linux from Unix, a command-based OS long a fixture in academic computing departments and big corporations, and the lingua franca of the Internet, despite every attempt by Microsoft to budge it.

Rather than patenting the system for his own gain, Mr Torvalds, in saint-like fashion, publicised the source code, the usually secret 'recipe' that determines how the software works, so that other programmers could copy, refine and develop it.

Some of the world's best programmers took up the challenge and Linux became the flagship of the so-called open-source movement, which advocates free software for everyone. Mr Torvalds is its unofficial leader and is dubbed the world's most idolised geek.

Modestly, he calls Linux 'a programme for hackers by a hacker' and denies that he aspires for his creation to wipe out Windows.

Even so, many Linux supporters (a vocal and articulate bunch) do, denouncing the Microsoft desktop act as dumbed down - pretty pictures and baby talk.

Is Microsoft worried? It looks that way. Last year, in the so-called 'Halloween Memo', Microsoft conceded that Linux was 'making a progressively more credible argument that [its] OS software is at least as robust - if not more - than commercial alternatives'.

Microsoft later attacked Linux directly by publishing a document called Linux Myths on its Web site, questioning every aspect of its performance.

Some in the media dismiss Linux, too. One newspaper report called Linux a 'programme from hell', suitable only for 'bug-eyed computer users' whose idea of fun is to 'dream in hexadecimal'.

These comments cannot be dismissed, because even the preface to the standard Linux installation guide [

html] calls it 'one of the most complex and utterly intimidating systems ever written'.

Linux certainly takes more intelligence to install than Windows. Once up and running, it requires you to type brief, enigmatic, forgettable commands to get anything done. This is intriguing for the expert but hard on the novice, especially if he or she has been seduced by the colour, simplicity and familiarity of Microsoft icons.

Linux gurus have simplified the system, creating graphical versions. Even so, if things go wrong, for most versions technical support is scarce. You are on your own, apart from the legion of Web sites with help and 'how-to' advice covering almost every challenge.

If only Linux could run the world's most popular word-processing programme, Microsoft Office. For Linux to enter the mainstream, it desperately needs this application, or a new one that is just as good.

It could also launch an advertising campaign, the lack of which has made it seem too alternative for the conservative user. Many corporations see installing Linux as a gamble and instead play safe with Windows.

But because Linux is more reliable and free, it is finding a niche in small firms, particularly those reliant on good Net connections. Though Linux originally was seen as a wild card challenge to Windows, major industry players such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Dell Computer and SGI have now endorsed the technology.

So, if you are on a mainstream OS, next time you crash and find yourself pointlessly jabbing the keyboard, remember - there is an alternative.