Microsoft may not yet be shaking in its boots, but the Linux operating system (OS) is beginning to gain respect from some of the biggest names in technology, such as IBM, Sun and Oracle.
What is all the fuss about? Linux is simply Unix distributed for free. The secret to it is getting an installation you can use.
In the past, installing it was the closest thing to a hi-tech nightmare imaginable. You had to know IRQ numbers, hexadecimal values and more, and its appeal was to the hobbyist and the hacker.
With Red Hat version 5.1, Linux is almost a serious mainstream contender - almost, because there are still a few things the beginner needs to be careful about. If you want to try Linux, there are a few things you should do.
First, get a second PC. An Intel-based PC from any of the regular vendors will do fine. It need not be the fastest thing out there, just something solid with documentation.
If you must go to Shamshuipo or one of those places, tell the vendor you want to create a Linux machine. If he does not understand, go somewhere else. Check the Red Hat Web page (www.red  hat.com) for configurations if you have any doubts.
Second, check out Hong Kong Linux Users' Group (www.hklug.org ), which has lots of information and people in the know.
Third, be careful about the way you install Linux. Red Hat 5.1 is almost as easy to install as Sun Microsystems' Solaris 2.6 for x86, though Solaris is still a lot easier to install on an Intel-based box.
The difficulty comes in setting up the graphical user interface. Linux uses X Window (from XFree86) and this requires a bit of knowledge about your video card, for example, how much Ram it has.
You also get the option of partitioning your hard disk so you can have Windows 95 (or any other OS) in one area and Linux in another. At boot time, a program called LILO (Linux Loader) will come up first and ask you which system you want to boot. Although you can fool with this if you want to, I think a beginner would be better off only with Linux.
Once you have booted, you can jump into the X Window system by typing 'startx' (remember, Unix is case-sensitive). The beginner will find some things unusual at first and, therefore, difficult. That is why it is good to have a Linux friend nearby who is sympathetic.
After you have X Window running, you must get the modem working. Again, a beginner will need help. Once you have Netscape working and you can get on the Internet, you should check out all the sites that have to do with Linux - there are hundreds - along with lots of free software and millions of users.
So, now that you have a fully functioning Linux machine, what will you do with it? If you want to do office work, you can go to www.ap  plix.com and get a suite of office applications for US$99. This includes a word processor, spreadsheet, data builder, HTML editor and more. It is the Linux answer to Microsoft Office. If you want to set up a Web server which does not crash as often as Windows NT, you can get Apache - it's free.
There are many things you can do, but you must think hard about what it will take to get there.
Linux is getting easier to install and use all the time. It is no longer just a hacker haven for those who enjoy spending hours in front of a computer. It is hitting the big time, and companies as well as individuals are seriously considering it. There are few alternatives to Microsoft these days, but this is certainly one of them.
Remember also: Linux boxes helped sink the Titanic (they were used for some of the computer graphics in the blockbuster film).
PROS AND CONS Product: Red Hat Linux version 5.1 Price: Varies from $160 to $500 Platform: Machines based on Intel, Sparc, Alpha and PowerPC chips Availability: Computer malls such as Golden Arcade in Shamshuipo and 298 Hennessy Road in Wan Chai, or via the Web at www.redhat.com  Pros: Terrific Unix OS with lots of software, users and source code Cons: Still difficult to set up for beginners