Microsoft's marketing machine always has contended the company did not have a monopoly of desktop operating system (OS) software. In a legalistic sense, this is true - there are others such as IBM's OS/2, Solaris x86, BeOS, NeXT and FreeBSD. Then there is Linux. Sometimes called the 'renegade OS', Linux has an enormous following on the Web. Go to your favourite search engine and input 'Linux'. For a moment, you might not even think Microsoft mattered. In August 1991, Linus Torvalds, a Finnish computer scientist, put up his first message on the comp.os. minix newsgroup. He announced he was 'doing an operating system'. He said it was 'just a hobby, won't be big and professional . . .' Seven years later it is big indeed. Free versions are still available from the Web, although most people buy it on CD-Rom for a few hundred Hong Kong dollars. The name he gave to the system was Linux, which he says should be pronounced 'leenux'. Put simply, Linux is Unix for the PC. When you get it, you get the source code and thousands of files to play with as you wish. You also get what many programmers and computer hobbyists call 'a real operating system'. This usually is interpreted as a dig at Microsoft (if you thought Apple fanatics did not like Microsoft, you have not met a Linux fanatic). For many years, Linux became the OS of choice for hobbyists and 'hackers' (programmers for assembly or system-level languages). It recently has started to spread to unusual places: businesses. The chairman of the Hong Kong Linux User Group (HKLUG), Sammy Fung, estimated there could be thousands of people in Hong Kong who had tried Linux, but only about 20 to 40 per cent of them stayed with it. Until recently, Linux had a bad reputation for difficult installation. Mr Fung said Linux followers found it to be stable and cheap. 'People like Linux because it is a low-cost OS, far cheaper than Windows 95, NT or a commercial version of Unix. It is as stable as Unix, however, and can provide networking for many other systems, including Windows,' he said. 'You can also compile the Linux kernel with your own configuration.' The kernel in a Unix system is the nuts-and-bolts of the OS. To compile it means taking the source code and recreating the OS. For programmers, this is computer heaven. If you know what you are doing, you can do almost anything. Companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Sun and others guard the kernel software the way Coca- Cola guards its soft-drink formula. Despite the great attraction that Linux has for the hobbyist, Mr Fung does not believe only hobbyists use it. 'There are companies in Hong Kong that use Linux as a server and some, like ourselves, use it as the server for our own Web page. It can also do mail,' he said. Another member of HKLUG, Alan Knowles, ( http://www.hk . super.net/alan-k) is a supporter of freely distributed software. This is an idea that has been around from the beginning of computers. Almost everything available for Linux - and there is a great deal of it - is not only free, you often get the source code as well. Mr Knowles emphasised the help and sense of community among Linux users. 'Some of the other features that are not written or documented are the incredible support - newsgroups, the Hong Kong Linux Users Group, etc,' he said. 'If you write an intelligent question to the author of a program, generally they will respond unlike any other OS. 'There is a sense of community around the software, something that has few comparisons. And it is the only software where the manufacture won't stop supporting it or go bankrupt.' Linux runs on a variety of hardware, x86, Pentium, Sparc (Sun), MIPS (Silicon Graphics), Alpha (Digital/Compaq), 68000 and PowerPC (Apple). Mr Knowles said it might not run on the latest graphics card, but if you waited six months, someone would have written a driver for it. Most people who use Linux say it is much faster than any version of Windows. Takao Okamoto, a Russian-language teacher at Kobe City University of Foreign Studies in Japan, has used Linux for years. 'It's fast. If you have an application which is implemented both on Linux and on Windows, you can see the big difference in performance if they are run on equivalent hardware. The software runs much faster on Linux,' he said. It is doubtful if either Microsoft or Sun Microsystems will be too worried about Linux for a while. It does seem to be gaining in popularity, however. With the latest release of Red Hat Linux, Red Hat 5.1, installation is easier than before. It even has some commercial programs such as WordPerfect. It may still be thought of as a renegade OS, but in many ways, so was MS-DOS once.